May 27, 2020
DENVER — Today, several criminal justice organizations slammed Governor Polis’ decision to not renew parts of his Executive Order, which granted the Colorado Department of Corrections broad authority to safely release thousands of people from prisons in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside facilities and ultimately save lives. The Governor’s decision to halt the order comes on the heels of an April analysis provided to CDOC that predicted COVID-19 would infect more than 16,000 people living and working in the prisons and kill 150 to 170 incarcerated people and 73 to 80 staffers if prison populations aren’t reduced.
The coalition issued the following statement:
“For months during this pandemic, the Governor has urged everyday Coloradans to ‘Do Your Part.’ Yet when it came time to do his part, to protect the lives of elderly and medically compromised people in prisons, correctional staff and the community at large — the Governor abandoned them. Not only has he deprived the Department of Corrections of the power to release by refusing to extend parts of the executive order, but the Governor has also refused to exercise his own independent clemency and commutation powers to save lives behind bars. Our organizations know of hundreds of medically vulnerable, sick or elderly prisoners who pose no threat to public safety, but who face a serious risk of dying of COVID-19 in Colorado’s crowded prisons. Yet, putting politics above public health, the Governor refuses to act on their behalf. Based on modeling data provided to the Governor by the DOC, this failure to act is certain to result in needless suffering and death by people living and working behind bars.”
While Colorado’s COVID-19 curve may be flattening for those who are free, the public health crisis has reached a fever pitch for people in prisons. The state’s two largest COVID-19 outbreaks happened behind bars, with Sterling Correctional Facility having the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. At least 530 incarcerated people and 21 staff members have tested positive. The modeling shows that reducing Sterling’s prison population to single cells would decrease inmate infections by 77% at the peak and decrease inmate deaths by 65%. Reductions would also decrease staff infections by 61% and staff deaths by 38%. But without an executive order or other meaningful leadership from the Governor’s office in place, incarcerated people and staff don’t stand a chance.
“Prisons and jails are a virus’ delight: Many people living in close quarters, hosts with suppressed immune systems due to high stress, poor sanitation and hygiene standards, and an easy vector to get into the general population through justice system employees,” said Carrie Roberts, said former corrections officer and sheriff’s deputy Carrie Roberts on behalf of Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “If there was ever a time to take swift action to reduce our incarcerated population, it is right now.”
Since the start of this public health crisis, CDOC has released less than 300 people, with more than 16,000 remaining behind bars, and many prisons operating at or above 95% capacity. Now, without any order in place to safely reduce prison populations, those numbers are likely to stay fixed while COVID-19 cases climb. So far, at least 35 CDOC staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens have been placed on leave related to possible symptoms or exposure. On May 8, organizations called on Governor Polis to assert his executive authority and clemency powers to protect the most vulnerable people in prisons before it’s too late. The Governor declined, cavalierly noting that prisoners have masks and disregarding their inability to socially distance.
“It is unfortunate the Governor opted not to renew the essential parts of the executive order,” said ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes. “The ACLU and partners have been uplifting the stories of the many people in Colorado prisons, elderly and medically vulnerable, who present no public safety risk and yet they languish in prison. According DOC’s own figures – they are likely to become infected. In failing to renew the executive order, a governor who recently signed a law to end the death penalty in Colorado has now effectively sentenced hundreds of people inside and outside our prisons to die.”
The signatories of this statement are the: Office of the State Public Defender, Second Chance Center, Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, Black Lives Matters 5280, Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, Civil Rights Education & Enforcement Center, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition, Colorado Freedom Fund, Criminal Justice Act Panel Standing Committee and ACLU of Colorado.
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.