Colorado Rights Blog


  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.

  • Tuesday Olson knew her pregnancy was in trouble and tried to access hospital care as soon as possible. But there was a problem: she was in jail. This is her story.
  • It’s time to end the death penalty in Colorado. Family members who lost loved ones to murder speak out against an unjust and broken system.



Experts are sounding the alarm of the public health threat that prisons and jails pose during this pandemic. There is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system – people living in it, people working in it, and the communities they return home to. It is not a question of  if  the COVID-19 virus will take hold in Colorado’s prisons and jails; it’s a matter of when. We need everyone’s help to save lives.


March 17, 2020 – Letter to the Governor

ACLU of Colorado and eight  criminal justice and indigent defense organizations  sent a letter to Governor Polis and Chief Justice Coats, among others, urging immediate action to address the heightened risk of COVID-19 spreading to incarcerated individuals, correctional staff and, ultimately, the public.

Read the full letter sent to Governor Polis and other state officials

March 19, 2020 – Letter to Colorado Juvenile Justice Officials

ACLU of Colorado and eleven organizations sent a letter to Colorado juvenile justice officials outlining immediate actions to take to protect incarcerated children. 

Read the letter sent to Colorado juvenile justice officials

March 22, 2020 – Letter from an Infectious Disease Expert

Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease expert at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, sent a letter to policymakers, judicial officers, sheriffs, wardens and parole boards, stating his concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

“The conditions in these facilities do not allow for appropriate infection control protocols and will make the current COVID-19 pandemic worse. Incarcerated populations have higher rates of underlying illness and, by extension, will have a higher case fatality rate.”

Read Dr. Franco-Paredes’ letter to policymakers and criminal legal system officials

March 24, 2020 – Governor Polis’ Guidance to Law Enforcement

Governor Polis issued guidance to Colorado counties, municipalities, law enforcement agencies and detentions centers, emphasizing the need to incarcerate fewer people in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Read Governor Polis’ Guidance to Counties, Municipalities, Law Enforcement Agencies, and Detention Centers

March 25, 2020 – Our Statement on the Governor’s Guidance

ACLU of Colorado released a statement commending Governor Polis for putting science and public health above politics by urging localities to take immediate action to safely and substantially reduce the jail population. We called upon the Chief Justice to ensure that every judge responds with equal haste to lower jail populations across the state. 

Read the ACLU of Colorado Statement on Gov. Polis’ Guidance to Local Law Enforcement

March 25, 2020 – Governor Polis Issues an Executive Order

The Governor issued and Executive Order to aid in lowering the prisoner population in state prisons and community corrections. Polis’ action suspended state laws to increase the authority of the Executive Director of the Department of Corrections to release certain incarcerated people.

Read Governor Polis’ Executive Order 

March 26, 2020 – Letter to Colorado Sheriffs

ACLU of Colorado sent a letter to all Colorado sheriffs to collectively help stop the spread of COVID-19 by safely and swiftly reducing the jail population.

Read the ACLU of Colorado letter to sheriffs

April 3, 2020 – Coalition Files Lawsuit

The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel filed two emergency petitions today asking the Colorado Supreme Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado jails. The ACLU of Colorado, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Disability Law Colorado, Colorado Lawyers Committee and the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition joined the petition as parties in interest.

Read the petition

April 8, 2020 – Class Action Lawsuit filed against Weld County Sheriff

ACLU and civil rights attorneys filed a class action lawsuit in federal court, seeking an emergency order to compel Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines – including physical distancing – for all high-risk people being held in the Weld County Jail.

Read the release here.

May 8, 2020 – Coalition letter to Governor Polis to Stop COVID-19 From Becoming a Death Sentence for People in Prisons

Several organizations called on Governor Polis today to assert his executive authority and clemency powers to protect the most vulnerable people in prisons before it’s too late. In a letter sent to the Governor, the organizations cited new data proving that his actions to date are insufficient to protect the lives of elderly and medically compromised people in prisons, correctional staff and the community at large.

Read the letter here.

May 11, 2020 – Federal Judge Orders Weld County Jail to Protect Medically Vulnerable People From COVID-19

A federal judge issued a 39-page ruling holding that the U.S. Constitution requires that Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams provide special protections to medically vulnerable people incarcerated in the Weld County Jail. Judge Phillip A. Brimmer’s order was issued after a full-day evidentiary hearing on April 30 in a class action lawsuit filed by a team of ACLU and civil right attorneys seeking an order to compel Sheriff Reams to comply with public health guidelines — including physical distancing — for all high-risk people being held at the jail. 

Read the release here.

May 27, 2020 – Advocates to Governor Polis: Failure to Renew Prison Executive Order Will Cause Needless Suffering and Death

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.

Read the statement here.

May 27, 2020 – No One Deserves to Die From COVID-19

Colorado recently abolished the death penalty, and yet older and medically vulnerable Coloradans are facing a death sentence in prisons that will not protect them from the virus. We must continue to safely lower jail and prison populations in order to save lives. No one deserves to die from COVID-19. 

Read the story collection here.

May 28, 2020 – ACLU Files Class Action Lawsuit against Governor and DOC for Failure to Protect Medically Vulnerable People in Prison from COVID-19

ACLU of Colorado filed a class action lawsuit today against Governor Polis and the Department of Corrections seeking an emergency order to compel the DOC to protect medically vulnerable incarcerated people from COVID-19. The requested order includes prioritizing the release of people who are older, sick, or otherwise vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 and who pose no threat to public safety. ACLU’s lawsuit comes on the heels of DOC modeling that projects thousands of incarcerated people and staff will become infected and hundreds will die if prison populations are not reduced.

Read the release here.

June 23, 2020 –  ACLU sends letters to Colorado Sheriffs on their duty to protect high-risk people in prison from COVID-19. 

ACLU of Colorado sent letters to Colorado Sheriffs to ensure they were aware of both the Colorado federal court order outlining sheriffs’ obligations to take aggressive protective action on behalf of medically vulnerable incarcerated people and the correlating imperative to maintain lower jail populations while COVID-19 remains a threat.

Read the letter here.

August 26, 2020 –  ACLU hosts COVID-19 decarceration panel to lift up the voices of family members whose loved ones are incarcerated. 

ACLU of Colorado held a webinar panel on the need to decarcerate. Panelists included attorneys involved in the lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Corrections and family members whose loved ones are incarcerated during this pandemic. The other 300 attendees heard about conditions in Colorado’s prisons, learned about the urgent need to reduce the number of people in prison and took action to safely release at-risk incarcerated Coloradans.

Read move about the event here.

August 27, 2020 –  ACLU and over 50 nonprofits in Colorado join together for a Decarceration Day of Action. 

Nonprofits across the state mobilized their supporters to call, email and contact Governor Polis on social media and urge him to safely release the elderly and at-risk from unsafe, overcrowded prisons in Colorado, and save lives now.

Read move about the event here.

August 27, 2020 –  ACLU and Progress Now Colorado release videos uplifting the stories of people behind bars. 

The ACLU-CO and Progress Now Colorado release two videos uplifting the stories of Anthony Martinez and Ronald Johnson. 

Ronald Johnson is a 62-year-old grandfather who has turned his life around in prison after being convicted of non-violent offenses related to substance abuse. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19.His daughter, Amber, says, “My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison.”

Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure. He is incarcerated at Sterling, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID cases. Anthony’s niece, Kelly, has a room in her home waiting for him to spend his final years. She says, “My uncle is lonely and isolated. Prison is no place for elderly people.” 

Watch Ronald Johnson’s video here.

Watch Anthony Martinez’s video here.


While Colorado’s COVID-19 curve is flattening, the public health crisis is ramping up in our prisons, which are set to become the epicenter of Colorado’s fight against the virus. The Governor must take action to bring our neighbors safely home or more people will die both behind bars and in the community. We need statewide leadership to reduce incarcerated populations and release the most vulnerable communities from prison as a vital step in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

To call the Governor:

Click here or make your own call to (303) 866-2471

To email the Governor:

Click here or write your own email to

To contact the Governor on social media:

Click here or write your own message to him on the social media platforms below

Twitter: @GovofCO or @jaredpolis

Instagram: Governor Jared Polis (@govofco) or Jared Polis (@jaredpolis)

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