April 14, 2020
After considerable public pressure, including ACLU’s highly-publicized lawsuit, the Weld County Sheriff has finally taken substantial steps toward compliance with CDC guidance, and the jail population is now decreasing. But serious damage is already done and at least one man is dead.
In a development that jail authorities have so far shielded from public knowledge, 78 year old Charles Peterson died from COVID-19 on April 1, only two days after he was released from the Weld County Jail. He was desperately sick in the jail, and it is likely that Weld County Jail officials arranged to have him released due to that illness. Nonetheless, when Mr. Peterson’s housemate came to pick him up from the jail, no official told the housemate that Mr. Peterson was ill. Mr. Peterson barely made it to his home before an ambulance had to be called and took him to the hospital where he died.
The jail is now suffering a major and predictable outbreak of COVID-19. This outbreak is a direct result of Sheriff Reams’ earlier resistance to the imperative need for reducing the jail population and his cavalier attitude toward the risks of widespread contagion, endangering people in custody, jail staff and the public. Despite the jail population finally decreasing, as of April 10, there were 14 COVID-19 cases among people incarcerated at the Weld County Jail, including six people who tested positive for the virus and eight presumptive positive cases. One person has been transferred to the hospital. Another person remains in the jail on a continuous oxygen machine and shares a cell with another sick patient. The jail doesn’t sanitize the cells, so even while sick, patients are forced to scrub floors and clean their own areas while fighting for their lives. Despite practices improving in the jail, medically vulnerable people, like the plaintiffs in this case, are still locked in small cells 22 hours a day, unable to practice physical distancing from one another, many have likely been exposed to COVID-19. The risk to medically vulnerable plaintiffs in these conditions is grave.
We hope that the changes Sheriff Reams finally made to better align with public health guidelines are not too late and that, with the jail population decreasing, we will see this outbreak brought under control and no more lives lost.
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.