ACLU files federal lawsuit against El Paso County sheriff over COVID protections for jail inmates

1,031 people in the jail have tested positive for the coronavirus

By: - December 14, 2020 9:52 am

A view of the entrance to the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center in Colorado Springs. (Google Maps)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, alongside three private attorneys, filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on Sunday to improve COVID-19 protections for incarcerated people at El Paso’s county jail.

The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and court order to require El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines, provide necessary personal protective equipment to inmates, and improve monitoring and treatment for people who test positive for the virus within the jail, according to a press release.


“While publicly on Facebook Sheriff Elder was imploring citizens to ‘wear a mask,’ privately he and his staff prohibited people from wearing masks in their housing units,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado legal director. “The result of the sheriff’s multiple failures was the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any jail or prison in the state, with two-thirds of the jail population testing positive. Only then, a few weeks ago, did the sheriff finally begin providing incarcerated people with masks.”

Inmates at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center, which houses on average 1,200 people at a time, did not receive masks regularly until the first week of November, according to an investigation by The Denver Post. Inmates previously were given a mask if they had to attend court or if they had to move to a different part of the jail.

There are approximately 1,031 people in the El Paso County jail who have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as 115 staff members, according to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The outbreak is currently the second largest in the state, trailing closely behind the Sterling Correctional Facility, Colorado’s largest state prison.

‘It was just chaos’: Former Sterling prison guard says COVID protocols were not enforced

The 36-page lawsuit alleges that Elder failed to provide masks, mixed COVID-positive inmates with uninfected people, and did not quarantine new people being admitted to the jail. According to the lawsuit, Elder received $15.6 million in federal funding under the CARES Act to respond to the pandemic and protect inmates.

“Hundreds of people contracted COVID-19 in the jail and suffered unnecessarily because of the sheriff’s deliberately indifferent failure to protect them from an obvious risk of infection and harm to their health,” said Dan Williams, an attorney on the legal team, in a statement. 

“Those who have yet to contract the virus live in constant fear, as they look around at sick bunkmates, coughing jail staff and a general disregard for safety,” Williams said. “In the time it took to prepare to file this case, people who tested negative multiple times have now tested positive and begun to get sick. Urgent is an understatement.”


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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.