A months-long ACLU investigation resulted in a resounding success for basic human rights and dignity for persons charged with crimes in Weld County. The Weld County Jail holds the county’s pre-trial detainees—persons presumed innocent and not yet convicted of any crime, but who are unable to post bail while awaiting their day in court. Near the end of 2008, the ACLU learned that the Weld County Jail was housing approximately 50 prisoners in a unit composed entirely of “dry cells”—cells with no toilets and no running water. The particular jail unit housed the jail’s “minimum security” detainees—mostly people awaiting trial on criminal traffic violations, driving while impaired, and other misdemeanor crimes. After receiving a letter from one detainee, ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass began corresponding with numerous detainees at the jail over several months. The conditions he uncovered were truly astonishing.
During “lockdowns”, detainees are confined entirely to their cells. Lockdown at the Weld County Jail lasts 11 hours per day, and jail staff can impose additional, “emergency” lockdowns at any time. During these hours, detainees held in the “dry cells” were forced to wait for a jail deputy to release them from their dry cell in order to use a common external toilet. The ACLU’s investigation uncovered that jail deputies were often unable or unwilling to take detainees to the bathroom for hours at a time. As described in a letter from Pendergrass to Weld County Jail authorities:
"Under these circumstances, it is eminently foreseeable that the jail’s policy will force detainees who physiologically must urinate or defecate to do so in their cells when deputies are unavailable or unwilling to provide access to an external toilet. Numerous detainees have coped with the jail’s policy, while trying to maintain some semblance of sanitation, by urinating or defecating into small plastic trash cans in the cells. In addition to the blatantly unconstitutional condition of forcing three or four other cellmates to live within immediate contact of raw, exposed human waste, the dry cells have no running water that would permit the detainee to wash himself afterward.
Aided by the legal research of summer legal clerk Chris Markos, the ACLU demanded that the jail cease housing detainees in any cell without running water and a toilet. In response to the ACLU’s letter, the Weld County Jail undertook an unexpected but welcomed course of action—it simply removed the locks from all the “dry cell” doors, allowing prisoners access to the toilets at any time. The jail also instituted new policies and training for all deputies “to insure no operational rule or practice prohibits access to toilet or lavatory facilities.” The ACLU’s advocacy, combined with the Weld County Jail’s laudable willingness to respond to the ACLU’s complaint, ensures basic dignity and sanitation for thousands of current and future Weld County Jail detainees, and ends a practice which had been the status quo at the Weld County Jail for over a decade.
Taylor Pendergrass , ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney
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