May 8, 2020
DENVER – As COVID-19 outbreaks continue to climb in Colorado 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.
“It is clear that the [Governor’s] Executive Order was insufficient to address the crisis and that further action is needed now, before more deaths come. We urge you to exercise your substantial power to safely release as many incarcerated people as possible, most particularly incarcerated people who, due to their age and/or medical conditions, are at serious risk of sickness or death from COVID-19. Without your actions, widespread illness, hospitalizations and deaths are inevitable.”
The letter goes on to say that while Colorado’s COVID-19 curve may be flattening for those who are free, the public health crisis is reaching a fever pitch for people who are incarcerated. Testing at the Sterling Correctional Facility, now the site of the state’s 2nd largest COVID-19 outbreak, has confirmed that at least 278 people there — 266 incarcerated people and 12 staff members — have tested positive for the virus, many of whom are asymptomatic. At four other U.S. state prisons, 96% of the nearly 3,300 people who tested positive also showed no symptoms for the virus, further illustrating that simply isolating those who seem sick from those who appear well is not enough to halt the spread. At least one man died from contracting COVID-19 at Sterling — he was 86-years-old.
The ACLU and eight criminal justice and indigent defense organizations sent a letter to the Governor on March 17 urging him to take decisive action to depopulate prisons and jails. The Governor later issued an Executive Order, which granted Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams the broad authority to consider releasing more than 7,000 people. But that order has been ineffective. More than a month after the Governor’s executive order was issued, the CDOC has only released around 200 people, with over 16,000 remaining behind bars and prisons still at over 90% capacity. So far, at least 25 CDOC staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and 57 are on leave related to possible symptoms or exposure. These numbers, like those at other facilities around the country, are almost certainly a dramatic undercount of the number of infected staff members statewide.
Today’s letter makes specific recommendations for actions by Governor Polis that would substantially and safely reduce the prison population. In following these recommendations, Polis would join the ranks of Governors from a dozen states who have worked to release thousands of incarcerated people on an emergency basis to mitigate disaster, including New York, Kentucky and Maryland. In Colorado, the numbers prove that left to its own devices, the CDOC has not effectively and substantially reduced the prison population and the Governor must intervene.
“Colorado just abolished the death penalty. We cannot keep elderly and medically vulnerable Coloradans incarcerated in prisons that are likely to become their death traps.”
The signatories of the letter are the: Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Physician’s for Criminal Justice Reform, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Center for Health Progress, Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, Black Lives Matters 5280, Colorado Lawyers Committee, Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Civil Rights Education & Enforcement Center, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Working Families Party, Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition, Second Chance Center, 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.