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.
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. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die. Anthony has spent over 30 years behind bars for a series of robberies. He has paid a substantial debt to society for these crimes. With his age and infirmity, no one can argue he is public safety risk, but he has a substantial risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 if he remains incarcerated. Despite this, his special needs parole application was denied.
Anthony’s niece, Kelly, has a room in her home waiting for him to spend his final years. She says, “Only nine people on the side of the prison where my uncle is currently held are still negative for COVID-19. It’s all around him and it’s only a matter of time before he gets sick. I know my uncle is lonely. He’s wheelchair-bound, hard of hearing and locked in his cell almost all day. Prison is no place for elderly people. Please, I need my uncle home before he dies.”
In the midst of this public health crisis, people as vulnerable as Anthony could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.
Gary Winston is 58 and suffers from severe respiratory problems. While incarcerated in jail, Gary was on oxygen continuously for over a month after his oxygen levels fell dangerously low, and he continues to require two inhalers. He also has a history of cardiac problems and is on medication for high blood pressure. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, where COVID-19 is tearing through the prison. Gary is serving a one-year sentence for drug possession and is eligible for regular parole in one month. Even though he faces the possibility of serious illness or death if he contracts COVID-19, Gary’s request for special needs parole was “deferred.”
Gary has two children and three grandchildren. His wife, Sandra Winston, is desperate for his release. She says, “It feels like he’s in hell and I can’t do anything to help him. The prison is a petri dish and the virus is spreading fast. The man who died in Sterling had upper respiratory problems just like Gary. I don’t want my husband to die. I know he’s not perfect, he’s messed up in the past but these men are human beings. During this pandemic, I don’t understand why we keep nonviolent and medically vulnerable people in prison. It feels like they are cutting out my heart and crushing it.”
Sandra has delayed necessary surgery for her stage-four colon cancer because as long as Gary remains incarcerated, there is no one to help her after she is released from the hospital. She says, “After chemo, sometimes I don’t have the strength to get out of bed. You don’t realize how much you need someone until they leave and my fear is that I might never get him back. As long as he’s stuck in there, I feel like I’m stuck in there with him.”
Gary describes what it’s like to be incarcerated and medically vulnerable during this pandemic. He says, “It’s the feeling of always being afraid. The other day I was literally crying because I didn’t know if I was sick or not. I love my wife and I need to be out there with her to help her as she’s going through this cancer.”
John Peckham suffers from multiple chronic respiratory problems. He has already been hospitalized due to dangerously low oxygen levels and requires breathing treatments several times a day. In support of John’s release, his doctor wrote, “I do not see how any correctional facility can fully protect him from COVID-19 and infection in his case would have dire consequences for the patient.”
Shortly after his parents’ deaths just months apart, John was evicted from his home. As a result of these emotional, financial and legal difficulties, he made a series of bad decisions. He has served five years for theft and becomes eligible for parole in 2023. According to his close friend Mark, “The fact that he got a twenty-year sentence for a non-violent crime reflects a problem with the criminal justice system. The truth is that in prison, you can’t social distance. If John becomes sick with COVID-19, he has little chance of surviving. That scares me.”
Before his incarceration, John had a good job, a passion for IT and loved spending time in nature. His friends describe him as smart, generous and deeply curious. John says, “I am a father and grandfather of three. I am scared about what will happen to me if I get COVID-19. I frequently wonder if I will get the chance to get out and meet my three grandchildren and be reunited with my other family members.”
While in prison, John has received certificates in multiple work training programs. John says, “Prison has humbled me greatly. I am zero risk to the public.” CDOC’s own assessments confirm John does not pose a risk to the public and yet he remains in prison. John’s greatest fear is dying while incarcerated. He says, “If I’m going to go, I would rather go free on the outside than trapped behind these walls.”
Christine Nye, 48, has heart arrhythmia and severe asthma that has required her to use two inhalers since her late 20s. Ms. Nye arrived in prison as a young 20-year-old who had survived a traumatic life. In her nearly three decades behind bars, she has matured greatly and is now a talented artist who has a lead position in the print shop at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF). She has also worked as an Offender Care Aide, helping incarcerated people with disabilities and medical conditions, and as a dog trainer. For many years, she participated in the Shape Up program to encourage juveniles to follow the law. She is currently a student in DWCF’s Culinary Arts Program and serves as Bureau Chief for the Inside Report, a prison newspaper. Ms. Nye participated in the Denver University Prison Arts Initiative’s December 2019 production of “A Christmas Carol,” serving as its scenic designer and technical director. For many years, she has painted murals and helped decorate prison visiting rooms for holiday celebrations to improve the experience of children visiting their incarcerated mothers. Ms. Nye has formally and informally volunteered as a peer mentor for many other women in prison. She has a strong family support system waiting to help her transition home. A devoted daughter, mother, and grandmother, Ms. Nye is more than her worst mistakes. She deserves a chance to be of service to her family and society. She doesn’t deserve to die from COVID-19.
Marcel has been in Sterling Correctional Facility — site of the state’s 2nd largest COVID-19 outbreak — since February 2020. He is scheduled for release in November, if he makes it out alive. Marcel is medically vulnerable because he has an arachnoid cyst in his head. He is at risk for blindness with this type of cyst and it is unknown how it would react to the virus. Marcel is unable to socially distance in his cell and feels there is not adequate access to medical care. His cellmate was sick and tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, Marcel and others were put in the hole for quarantine. While in the hole, inmates were refused cleaning supplies and the showers were not cleaned in between uses. Marcel stopped using the showers and bathed in the sink for fear of infection. With conditions at Sterling remaining status quo, it’s not a matter of if Marcel catches the virus but when. His mother Michelle is heartsick that Marcel’s daughter, Camblin, may never see her father again. No parent deserves to live with that fear.
Demika Rogers suffers from severe asthma and pre-diabetes which places her at a higher risk of mortality if she contracts COVID-19. Ms. Rogers came to prison as a 25-year-old woman and has since dramatically transformed herself into a leader who works to help others. For more than a decade, she has lived in the incentive unit at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF), which requires her to maintain positive behavior and avoid disciplinary infractions. Ms. Rogers is a talented chef who worked in the culinary department at DWCF for many years. Currently, she works as a dog trainer. She has completed many rehabilitative programs and serves as a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program and the founder of Women of Influence, a program that mentors women serving lengthy sentences. Ms. Rogers participated in the Denver University Prison Arts Initiative’s December 2019 production of “A Christmas Carol,” playing the lead role of Scrooge. She received many accolades for her performance, which was seen by several thousand people in multiple performances both within DWCF and in the community. She has proven herself to be responsible and ready to be a contributing member of society. Ms. Rogers doesn’t deserve to die from COVID-19. She deserves a fighting chance.
Ronald Johnson is a 62 year old father who has turned his life around in prison after being convicted of non-violent offenses related to substance abuse. He is pre-diabetic and suffers from asthma and high blood pressure. He 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.”
Ronald has served 22 years in prison for theft, forgery, fraud and drug possession, and he takes full responsibility for his actions. He says, “I spent the first few years of my incarceration blaming my actions on my drug use. As I have grown, and looked into myself, I have come to take responsibility for the choices I made. Once I accepted the harm my role caused others, I actively sought out ways that I could make amends.”
Amber has seen how her father has changed. She recalls when she was 18, headed to college and heard her father was sentenced to 96 years in prison. She says, “To be honest, I did not have a lot of respect for him when he was first sentenced. I told him I was so disappointed that his careless actions were going to cause so much suffering for his family. Since I said that, he made a change. He has been sober 15 years and I have witnessed the transformation. Now, I have a dad. I have someone I respect and love. He is a model in the prison, and I know he will better our community when he is free.”
Ronald has spent decades devoting himself to self-improvement and supporting other incarcerated people. He says, “I am an Offender Care Aid where my duties include assisting offenders with medical disabilities. I am now helping others, as opposed to my past ways of simply thinking of myself. I also work in the incentive unit where I assist staff with maintenance of the facility. Ten years ago, I never would have believed I would be working with, and alongside, correctional staff. Just as times change, so do people and so have I.”
Ronald has spent over ten years in an incentive unit, which requires him to avoid disciplinary infractions. He mentors incarcerated people earning their GED and coordinates the mental health course offered to incarcerated people. He has completed numerous job trainings, courses and programs including Bridges to Life and Thinking for a Change. Governor Hickenlooper even 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. Amber says, “At all the protests you will hear, ‘Black lives matter.’ When people say that, they mean that our lives are not dispensable. My dad was sentenced to 96 years in prison for a nonviolent offense fueled by addiction and desperation. His incarceration has caused four generations – from his parents who died before seeing their son free to my children growing up without a grandpa – unspeakable pain and trauma. We have lost so much time with him. Please, we just need him safely home.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us feeling powerless, especially families whose loved ones remain at risk inside Colorado prisons. But there is something that you can do — share your story. One of the most effective ways to change hearts and minds, and urge officials to protect medically vulnerable and elderly people in prisons, is through your personal experiences. By sharing your stories, you will help us better understand what is happening inside Colorado’s prisons and join us in advocating for the safe release of our most vulnerable neighbors. No one deserves to die from COVID-19. Your stories can help save lives.
If you are willing to share your story please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Our plan is to use this information to identify issues and trends to better advocate for people who are incarcerated and protect civil liberties for all. Please note: e-mailing email@example.com does not offer or guarantee legal representation or advice.