A photograph of the sign outside the Sterling Correctional Facility in Logan County. (Sterling Journal-Advocate)
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on Wednesday asked a judge to issue an emergency order to force Gov. Jared Polis to decrease the state’s prison population to promote greater social distancing and protect vulnerable inmates from the coronavirus.
The preliminary injunction submitted in Denver District Court is part of an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by the advocacy group in May. The lawsuit against Polis and Department of Corrections executive director Dean Williams alleges that the state has not done enough to protect vulnerable inmates from the virus and that the inaction has resulted in “cruel and unusual” punishment.
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Seven of the 10 largest active outbreaks in the state are within state prisons. A total of 5,073 inmates and 857 staff members have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic and 11 people have died, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections COVID-19 dashboard. Four male inmates over the age of 60 died this week at three state prisons.
“Across the world, this insidious virus has taken hundreds of thousands of loved ones from their friends and family during the course of this pandemic,” Williams said in a statement. “Unfortunately, our incarcerated population is no exception.”
Erica Grossman, a partner at the law firm Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, who is part of the case with the ACLU, said that the CDOC has complied with an earlier consent decree to improve coronavirus protocols and overall conditions within correctional facilities, but more still needs to be done.
“Given the current overcrowded population, the nature of the virus within these congregate settings, and the number of medically vulnerable people inside these prisons, it’s necessary to reduce the population,” Grossman said. “Whether it’s special needs parole, executive orders or through clemency, these things are not in the DOC’s control, these are in the governor’s control. He has the power here.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, criminal justice advocates and families of inmates have pushed for inmates who pose little to no public safety risk — either because of the person’s age, health conditions or if they have shown signs of rehabilitation — to be released from prison. Approximately 36% of the people in the state’s prison system are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and nearly 7% of the total population is over 60, according to the DOC’s website. There are currently 17,621 people incarcerated in Colorado state and private prisons.
In March, Polis issued an executive order that allowed the DOC to release at-risk and nonviolent inmates, but the order has since expired. While it was in place, 61 people earned time credits, 165 were released on “special needs” parole and 84 were released through the DOC’s Intensive Supervision Program, according to the DOC website. The number of inmates released is less than 2% of the state’s prison population.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Polis said that incarcerated people would not be given a vaccine before “free people,” despite a draft state plan stating otherwise.
“This isn’t one of those cases where you have a governor who’s not paying attention to COVID,” Grossman said. “He’s doing a lot of things to protect people in Colorado, just ones that aren’t in prison.”
“The idea that he’s going to listen to public health experts when it comes to people that aren’t in prison and then refuse to look into their own vaccination plan when it comes to people in prison, I think it just shows where he is at in terms of his bias,” she added.
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