March 17, 2020
DENVER – With the number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus/COVID-19 climbing in Colorado, several organizations called on Governor Polis, State Court Administrator Vasconcellos, and Chief Justice Coats, as well as the Colorado Department of Corrections, the Colorado Parole Board and the Colorado Department of Safety, to take immediate action to protect the lives of vulnerable inmates, guards, correctional and court staff, attorneys, probation officers, parole officers, their families and the public from the inevitable community spread of the pandemic. The signatories of the letter are: ACLU of Colorado, Office of the State Public Defender, Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Denver Municipal Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Colorado Freedom Fund, and Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, Criminal Justice Act Panel Standing Committee.
“Without immediate and bold action, Colorado’s prisons and jails may well become the epicenter for the broad community spread of COVID-19 … by definition, they are crowded, highly populated environments. While Governor Polis has urged a limit to public gatherings of more than 50 people, the vast majority of Colorado’s 57 jails and 23 prisons house far more than 50 inmates and staff on any given day. For example, the Sterling Correctional facility holds close to 2,500 inmates and Denver County Jail holds about 2,000. In these facilities, staff and inmates have close and daily contact, and inmates literally sleep, eat, and use the toilet within a few feet of one another. In these circumstances, social distancing is literally impossible. Many underfunded and overcrowded jails are already unsanitary, have minimal and uncertain access to hygiene products, and extremely limited access to medical care. Further, in overcrowded jails, quarantining more than a small number of sick inmates is impossible. These conditions are ideal for spreading COVID-19, perhaps more so than any other environment in Colorado.”
The letter urges officials to use their existing powers and “moral authority” to protect people involved in the state’s jail and prison system through a detailed action plan, which is centered around four overarching goals: (1) immediately and safely decrease the number of people in Colorado’s jails and prisons; (2) dramatic decrease of new admissions into jails and prisons; (3) change of court practice to dramatically decrease in-person appearances; and (4) evidence-based, humane and rights-affirming measures to protect the health and wellbeing of the inmates and staff who spend the majority of their time in Colorado’s jails and prisons.
“It is not a question of if COVID-19 will infect Colorado’s jails and prisons; it is a matter of when … failure to take immediate steps to decarcerate is likely to worsen and extend this public health crisis.”
Read the full letter sent to Governor Polis and other state officials.
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.