March 26, 2020
DENVER – ACLU of Colorado called on all Colorado sheriffs to collectively help stop the spread of COVID-19 by safely and swiftly reducing the jail population. In a letter that went out to sheriffs in 52 counties throughout the state, ACLU of Colorado cited the medical necessity of drastically reducing community spread in county jails as a matter of public health and constitutional duty.
“This epidemic has the potential to become the Coming Prison Plague,” Dr. Franco-Paredes, infectious disease expert at University of Colorado Anschutz explained.
Out of similar concern, on March 25 Governor Polis issued guidance for all local law enforcement, including sheriffs, to safely decrease the incarcerated population. Later that day, Governor Polis announced a stay at home order for Colorado effective March 26, further underscoring the point that keeping a distance from others “saves lives.” In the Governor’s guidance to sheriffs and others, he recognized what Dr. Franco-Paredes and public health experts around the country have urged: “Reducing the number of those arrested or incarcerated is vital to limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
While Coloradans are ordered to stay home and avoid gatherings of any size, crowded Colorado jails where social distancing is impossible create an ideal breeding ground for the transmission and spread of COVID-19 both within jails and to the community. With about 600 prisoners released from jails daily in Colorado, “Jails are a revolving door to and from community, creating the possibility of a super highway of transmission from the jail to free Coloradans.”
The ACLU of Colorado letter detailed sheriffs’ societal and constitutional obligation to substantially decrease jail populations so that inmates can receive adequate preventative and curative medical care. “According to public health guidelines, the only effective preventative measures are hygiene and social distancing,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said. “Crowded jails must substantially decarcerate if they are going to provide this constitutionally required preventative care.”
Like residents of elder-care homes, inmates who contract COVID-19 are significantly more vulnerable to severe complications and death than individuals living free in the community. “It is to be expected that COVID-19 will turn incarceration into a death sentence for some Colorado prisoners,” ACLU of Colorado Senior Staff Attorney and Senior Policy Counsel Rebecca Wallace said. “This is a particularly cruel outcome given that most of the people incarcerated in our jails are pre-trial, have not been convicted of a crime, and remain behind bars only because they cannot afford the money bond to get out.”
The letter warned that significant numbers of incarcerated people getting sick would burden health care systems and intensify the spread of the disease. Guards and other correctional staff interact closely with prisoners and then go home to interact closely with family and community members. “There is no line, thin or otherwise, between the health of inmates and the health of correctional staff who work with those inmates.”
“While we understand that this crisis calls for actions by many figures in the criminal justice system to assist in rapid decarceration, it is ultimately the jailer who is constitutionally responsible for maintaining safe conditions in a jail and for protecting the lives of high-risk inmates.”
Read the full letter sent to Colorado Sheriffs: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19-Sheriff-Letter-3-26-2020.pdf
Read the letter sent to Governor Polis and other state officials: https://acluco-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020-03-17-Covid-19-Letter-Jails-and-Prisons.pdf
Read Governor Polis’ Guidance to Counties, Municipalities, Law Enforcement Agencies, and Detention Centers: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Guidance-to-Counties-Municipalities-Law-Enforcement-Agencies-and-Detention-Centers-2.pdf
Read Dr. Franco-Paredes letter to policymakers, judicial officers, sheriffs, wardens, and parole boards: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19-Letter-C-Franco-Paredes-MD.pdf
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.