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Colorado Department of Corrections Correctional Officer David Aldana walks through the Fremont Correctional Facility during a formal count at the prison in Cañon City. Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Policing & Incarceration

In Colorado Prisons and Jails, a Piecemeal Approach to the Threat of Coronavirus

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By Daliah Singer

There are nearly 20,000 adult prison inmates in Colorado (about one-fifth of whom are older than 60), and thousands more in county jails. Those involved at all levels of the criminal justice system are concerned that if COVID-19 finds its way inside a prison or jail, there will be little ability to stop its spread.

As of March 27, three staff members of the Colorado Department of Corrections had tested positive for the coronavirus, including a staff member at the Sterling Correctional Facility, a parole officer in the Sterling area, and a staff member who works at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. A Denver Sheriff’s Department employee who works at the county jail has tested positive, as well as an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy.

Though no inmates in the state are known to have tested positive for COVID-19 yet, the population is particularly vulnerable. [Editor’s update: Approximately 8 hours after publication of this article, it was revealed that an inmate at the Denver jail had tested positive.]

“The introduction of COVID-19 into the corrections system could have devastating results…” said Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) executive director Dean Williams in a press release last week.

In other hotspots for the coronavirus around the nation, the illness has already shown that it can spread quickly in jails and prisons, where inmates are housed in close proximity to one another, and access to cleaning supplies is limited. At the Rikers Island jail system in New York City, which houses more than 5,000 inmates in New York, a rash of cases led city officials to release non-violent, elderly inmates.

“It’s going to be a very big problem,” says Becky Trammell, PhD, associate dean of Metropolitan State University’s college of professional studies, who has spent much of her career studying prison culture and violence. “I don’t even think quarantining [inmates] in one area of the prison is going to do the job in the long run. The problem is they can’t really socially distance. If you think of everything in [their] daily routines—going to the mess hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner, showering, going to the gym, there are jobs that everybody does—there are just a lot of variables.

“If it gets into the prison systems, I don’t know how they’re going to control it.”

The general U.S. population is facing shortages in ventilators and protective equipment. A survey released on March 27 by the United States Conference of Mayors found that more than 85% of the 213 cities that were assessed, including Denver and Lakewood, do not have enough face masks, personal protective equipment, test kits or ventilators. The shortage is likely exacerbated in corrections facilities.

“All of us are facing a health care system that is at capacity. We’re all having to make really tough decisions about when to call the doctor and when not to,” says Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit mass-incarceration research and advocacy organization based in Massachusetts. Yet “there are still unique barriers people who are incarcerated face when it comes to getting health care. … Health care is considered a security liability.”

As of March 27, a total of 27 inmates, being held in either the Denver Detention Center or the Denver County Jail, had been tested for COVID-19—but all had tested negative, according to a spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management’s Joint Information Center (JIC).

In Jefferson County, 36 inmates are being isolated for COVID-19 symptoms. Two individuals in the Garfield County jail had fevers and were being held in isolation; they tested negative for the flu. A forty-something male in the Larimer County Community Corrections program (a residential and nonresidential treatment initiative for lower-level offenders that is different than jail) tested positive and is in isolation and receiving on-site medical care.

A letter submitted to Gov. Jared Polis and state corrections leadership on March 17 by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and other organizations urged a “state-wide, consistent response” to the pandemic. (Employees of four separate public defender’s offices in the state have tested positive for the virus, according to Colorado Public Radio.) That has yet to happen, though many counties and districts have implemented comparable policies, albeit at different times.

CDOC Isn’t Releasing Inmates Early

Colorado’s criminal justice system has responded to the coronavirus pandemic with a piecemeal approach. A Colorado Supreme Court order from mid-March left most decisions to the discretion of each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts—meaning what hearings are happening, where they’re occurring, who’s being released from detention and who isn’t remains inconsistent throughout the state.

“There really is no single criminal justice system in the U.S.,” Bertram says. “There are thousands of local criminal justice systems and 50 different state prison systems, and they all choose to operate however they want. The kind of discrepancy you’re seeing in responses to this public health crisis right now are of the same type we see in a lot of other areas of criminal punishment.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has resisted urges by some senators and advocates to start releasing “the most vulnerable inmates.” And CDOC, which encompasses 20 public and three private prisons, as well as parole locations across the state, is not planning to release any inmates early. (Other states, including North Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, have already taken steps to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic.)

“The federal government could issue guidance to state departments of corrections,” Bertram says. However, she admits “there is always a political risk in letting people go free.”

Jails tend to be less contentious, Trammell says, because many of the people being held have yet to be convicted of a crime. It’s less politically damaging, then, to let someone out on a bond or, as Denver is doing, issue a summons instead of book them into a precinct.

(Ten women have been paroled from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Aurora detention facility as of March 26, Denverite reports. An administrative staffer has tested positive, though no detainees had as of Friday morning.)

On March 25, Gov. Polis signed an executive order to help CDOC better manage its prison population. Based on the new guidelines, CDOC said in an email that it is implementing a “temporary moratorium on receiving new intakes from county jails.” In practice, that means a two- to four-week process to shift all initial male inmate intakes to Cañon City’s Centennial Correctional Facility South, where there is space to medically isolate new arrivals for up to two weeks and ensure they aren’t showing COVID-19 symptoms before entering the larger system.

CDOC also said it will still “work with counties on a case by case basis to accept inmates from jails that are faced with overcrowding or public safety issues” and, per the governor’s guidance, it now has more flexibility in the awarding of earned time credits in order to help reduce the prison and parolee populations as it “deems necessary and appropriate.” [Editor’s update: On April 8, CDOC said they had released 25 inmates thus far, giving the inmates “intensive supervision parole” status.]

Prior to the executive order, CDOC was already working to reduce the number of individuals entering correctional facilities by “temporarily suspending arrests of parolees for low-level technical parole violations” and evaluating individuals currently being held in jail for these sorts of violations to determine if they can be released and referred to alternative interventions, such as electronic monitoring.

All incoming CDOC inmates, as well as those who leave and return (for a medical appointment, for example), are being screened for COVID-19 symptoms; staff and vendors are being evaluated, too. The department has waived all co-pays for those who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

Almost all on-site visitations have been halted at correctional facilities throughout the state, as have volunteer services. CDOC has also taken steps to make it a little easier for inmates and their families to stay in touch: Phone vendor GTL is providing inmates with one free 10-minute phone call per week, said Annie Skinner, the department’s public information officer. (Jail and prison phone calls have long been notoriously expensive.) Video visitation options were scheduled to begin on March 30.

Cleaning and sanitizing have increased at all facilities and in patrol vehicles. And, in order to protect staff—the CDOC employs more than 3,000 corrections officers—workforce numbers have also been reduced in accordance with Gov. Polis’ call to shrink in-person workforces by 50%.

Jails Are Responding More Quickly

Jails experience higher turnover, with inmates, attorneys and police officers walking in and out throughout the day. On average, 50% of the jail population turns over every week, Bertram says. (No recent estimates of Colorado’s total jail population are available.) Reducing this churn is a top priority across the state, both to protect inmates and staff and the broader communities to which they return.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has released 36 inmates early (a process that began pre-coronavirus because of budget cuts), and seven inmates on work release have transitioned to in-home detention, says Mike Taplin, the department’s public information officer.

One floor of the jail, which was previously closed due to budget constraints, has reopened to isolate inmates showing symptoms, though there have been no positive tests among incarcerated individuals or staff yet. One inmate who was set to be released was tested; results are still pending, and the sheriff’s office will be alerted if it comes back positive.

Denver County has undertaken efforts to reduce its inmate population by releasing some who are at high risk of complications from COVID-19 or who have minimal time left on their sentences.

On March 23, the Denver County Jail and Downtown Detention Center counted 1,543 inmates, down from an average population of 2,000, according to the JIC. A week earlier, Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen told The Denver Post that officers would issue summons rather than arresting those suspected of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Michael A. Martinez, chief judge for the second judicial district (Denver County), advised that defendants with less than 30 days remaining on their sentences, who were at risk for health reasons, or who were currently serving work-release sentences, should be submitted to the Court for review and release consideration.

Similar efforts are taking place in Boulder County. District attorney Michael Dougherty said in a phone interview that officials have reviewed every offender in the jail, starting with those with preexisting medical conditions, and taken steps to release those “who didn’t demonstrate an immediate risk to community safety.” They’ve also looked to release those in custody on a personal recognizance bond (meaning they don’t have to post any money). More than 100 individuals have been released thus far, said Boulder County Jail division chief Jeff Goetz.

Michelle Bird, public affairs director for Larimer County, said in an interview that all of the 142 individuals serving in Larimer County’s Alternative Sentencing Department—which oversees non-jail sentences such as community service and work programs—were temporarily released last Friday and will return to finish their sentences on a to-be-determined date. The space that was freed up—and sanitized—will now be used for isolation and quarantine as needed for those in the community corrections program.

Routt County is following similar procedures to other locales: Police calls that don’t require an in-person response are being handled over the phone. Deputies are ostensibly working from home, but they are running normal patrols and filing reports digitally.

“We are still going on active patrols and responding to calls, while trying to reduce the number of human-to-human contacts,” says Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins. “That may include, for example, not stopping people for minor traffic violations but rather using overhead flashing lights to signal to drivers they need to slow down.”

Eagle County—which had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases by county in the state, as of March 29—started putting a plan in action about three weeks ago, says Greg Van Wyk, jail administrator for the sheriff’s department. The detention facility is temperature-testing every arrestee before he or she enters the facility; interactions are more often occurring through cell doors rather than face-to-face; and initial court appearances are taking place via video (regular court appearances have been pushed back to May and June).

“We’re just making the assumption that everybody has been exposed and could be positive—we’re taking those precautions,” Van Wyk says. “We don’t cater and give inmates their own cells out of the goodness of our hearts… but we have pods where they can isolate.”

Van Wyk says the daily average population has dropped by about 20 people, and the staff is also identifying inmates with less than 30 days left on their sentences and encouraging them to contact their attorneys and judges to request motions for early release. Though the work-release program has been temporarily paused, the department is trying to expand their internal work program; inmates can earn up to 13 days of work credit by helping with tasks like painting the inside of the facility.

Strategies like these should help ensure that people aren’t held for extended time while courthouses are closed and hearings and trials are delayed. In order to guarantee individuals’ rights to a speedy trial and to address urgent criminal matters, courts across the state have largely shifted to video conferencing.

There are also potentially crucial infrastructure differences between facilities. For example, Routt and Eagle counties’ jails both have some reverse airflow or negative air pressure cells where inmates can be isolated without risking contamination throughout the venue. Not all prisons and jails can claim such features, though.

“The facilities with the greatest risk probably have limited medical [support],” says Van Wyk, whose Eagle County facility has contract medical staff, including a nurse who’s on-site eight hours a day plus nighttime coverage. In contrast, nearby Park County relies on a single nurse typically based at a hospital, Van Wyk says.

Unlike for those on the outside, access to soap and tissues can be limited for incarcerated individuals, and in many corrections facilities hand sanitizer is considered contraband because of the high alcohol content. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using a sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.)

“Inmates are forgotten as far as taking care of them in situations like this,” says Trammell. “People have a very negative attitude toward prisons in general. If push comes to shove, things are going to get pretty ugly for the inmates, simply based on that.”

Daliah Singer

Freelance writer and editor
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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