The ACLU of Colorado filed a class-action lawsuit this Sunday against El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder for failing to provide adequate COVID-19 protections to inmates detained at El Paso County Jail. The lawsuit claims that the largest COVID-19 prison outbreak in the state is due to the sheriff’s failure to adhere to public health guidelines, which puts inmates at risk of serious harm or even death. The ACLU is asking for an expedited hearing and court order requiring the sheriff to comply.
“Hundreds of people contracted COVID-19 in the jail and suffered unnecessarily because of the sheriff’s deliberately indifferent failure to protect them from an obvious risk of infection and harm to their health,” said Dan Williams, an attorney on the ACLU’s legal team. “Meanwhile, those who have yet to contract the virus live in constant fear as they look around at sick bunkmates, coughing jail staff, and a general disregard for safety. In the time it took to prepare to file this case, people who tested negative multiple times have now tested positive and begun to get sick. Urgent is an understatement.”
The class action complaint was filed by six detained people, and is based on hundreds of letters and dozens of interviews.
El Paso County Jail inmate Hannah Weikert, says she slept within arms length of COVID-positive inmates, and was not moved despite being pregnant, overweight and a severe asthmatic. She has since tested positive for COVID-19, yet has been denied access to an inhaler for her wheezing.
Another detainee, Iyan Murray, says his requests for a face mask were repeatedly denied. “When I asked for a mask, jail staff threatened me and other inmates by saying if we wanted to be protected from the virus we could just go in the hole or stay in lockdown with only 1 hour of out time a day. I was afraid of retaliation for trying to protect my health and safety.”
The Sheriff’s failure to provide basic personal protective equipment and treatment occurred despite receiving $15.6 million in federal funding for the specific purpose of COVID-19 protection. Instead, the Sheriff broke ground on a multimillion dollar construction project to upgrade staff locker rooms and offices.
“While publicly on Facebook Sheriff Elder was imploring citizens to ‘wear a mask,’ privately he and his staff prohibited people from wearing masks in their housing units,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “The result of the sheriff’s multiple failures was the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any jail or prison in the state, with two-thirds of the jail population testing positive. Only then, a few weeks ago, did the sheriff finally begin providing incarcerated people with masks.”
The El Paso County Sheriff’s office said they do not comment on pending litigation.
The class action lawsuit comes less than a week after Governor Jared Polis unveiled his revised vaccination plan, in which prisoners no longer receive a higher priority in the state’s vaccine distribution schedule. Under the initial plan, prisoners, students living in dorms, and those living in homeless shelters would be second in line for a COVID-19 vaccine, after only frontline health care workers.
The updated plan does not give prison populations any higher priority, and is at odds with the American Medical Association’s policy advocating for the prioritization of incarcerated populations and prison staff.
“Recognizing that detention center and correctional workers, incarcerated people, and detained immigrants are at high risk for COVID-19,” says the AMA, “these individuals should be prioritized in receiving access to safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in the initial phases of distribution.”
However, Polis downplayed the decision to remove prisoners from the early phases of the vaccine distribution plan.
“Every Coloradan is treated fairly under this whether you’re in prison or not,” Polis said at a news conference Wednesday. “Nobody is penalized because they’re incarcerated and of course no one is given any advantage because they’re incarcerated.”
The pandemic has already cost 15 Colorado inmates’ their lives, and the outbreak at the El Paso County jail is still ongoing. According to the El Paso County Sheriff’s office website, on December 11, 14 inmates and eight staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, 1,073 inmates and 165 prison staff have been infected.
State detention facilities are also experiencing substantial COVID outbreak. Over 11% of people incarcerated by the Colorado Dept. of Corrections, which settled its own ACLU lawsuit last month, have tested positive for the coronavirus.