U.S. district judge orders El Paso County jail to strengthen COVID-19 protocols

Nearly 88% of the jail population has tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as 115 staff members

By: - January 4, 2021 4:24 pm

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

A U.S. district judge on Monday ordered the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to strengthen COVID-19 protections for incarcerated people at the county jail.

The preliminary injunction, sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and three private attorneys as part of a class action lawsuit filed Dec. 13, requires 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. The court order, issued by U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson, expires in 90 days.

“El Paso just wasn’t taking the most basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which includes people wearing masks and separating people who are COVID positive from people who are COVID negative,” said Dan Williams, a cooperating attorney on the case from Hutchinson Black and Cook LLC. 

A spokesperson for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said the office had not had time to review the injunction since the ruling on Monday morning and were therefore unable to comment.

Approximately 1,051 people in the El Paso County jail 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 jail houses on average around 1,200 people at a time, meaning nearly 88% of the inmate population has tested positive. The outbreak is currently the fourth largest in the state, trailing behind the University of Colorado Boulder, the Sterling Correctional Facility — Colorado’s largest state prison — and Colorado State University. 

Inmates at the El Paso County jail 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.

For Williams, one of the most important components of the injunction is that it requires staff to check on inmates who test positive for the virus at least once a day. “These daily checks, checking people’s vital signs, should allow people to be transferred to the hospital when appropriate,” he said. 

The injunction also requires the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to provide the ACLU with weekly reports that track the outbreak, including the total number of COVID-19 positive inmates; the number of PCR COVID tests conducted during the prior week; and the number of inmates who tested positive each week. The court order also requires the jail to change how they classify COVID-positive inmates.

“If someone’s COVID positive, what the jail had been doing is waiting 10 days and then re-classifying them as COVID negative, which does not comply with CDC guidelines,” Williams explained, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So for someone who is a ‘long hauler’ or who has symptoms that are continuing, it’s not accurate to say, just because 10 days have passed, they no longer have COVID. So we felt the data was somewhat misleading.”

Williams said the ACLU of Colorado will go back to court if the protocols in the injunction are not being followed.

“If we find that these measures are being followed but it’s still not controlling the COVID outbreak, we would then approach the court and ask for modifications to change the procedures to make them more effective,” he added.

The injunction orders the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to do the following: 

  • Require all staff and contractors to wear masks and face discipline for failing to do so
  • Provide inmates with two cloth masks and require they wear them
  • Continue current COVID-19 testing protocols for inmates and employees, pending available resources; implement an alternative plan if resources are depleted
  • Require medical staff to screen and identify individuals who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19
  • Provide inmates access to clean drinking water and not shut off the water flow to drinking fountains or access to hot water used for food and drink
  • Require staff to check all inmates’ temperatures twice per day; tell inmates their temperatures; and alert medical staff when temperatures exceeds 99.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Isolate COVID-19 positive inmates from negative ones
  • Treat inmates for 10 days after first positive test or until their fever is gone for at least 25 hours or symptoms have resolved
  • Ensure that inmates placed in isolation have access to personal items, to the extent feasible
  • To the extent possible, house inmates with increased health risks in areas that allow for more than 6 feet of social distancing
  • Medical staff screen and record each COVID-19 positive inmate at least once a day by taking their vitals and doing a full symptom screening consistent with CDC guidelines. Staff must inform inmates of the results and provide available medication or supplemental oxygen
  • Provide medication for COVID-19 and nurse visits free of charge
  • Provide a weekly update to the ACLU of Colorado that includes the total number of COVID-19 positive inmates; the number of PCR COVID tests conducted during the prior week; and the number of inmates who tested positive the previous week.

 

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

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

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