The Colorado Department of Corrections has reached a tentative agreement in a class-action lawsuit over its treatment of state prisoners who are more vulnerable to getting and dying from COVID-19, new court records show.
COLORADO- The lawsuit, brought in May by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, characterized the state agency’s lack of measures to protect the vulnerable inmates who are at “substantial risk of severe illness or death” against the novel coronavirus pandemic as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The ACLU of Colorado specifically identified inmates across the state who have underlying conditions known to cause complications and increase mortality if infected by the coronavirus, including obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, hypertension, asthma and degraded immune systems. Inmates older than 55 are also cited as more vulnerable, and therefore requiring increased precautions against infection.
Details of the settlement weren’t made public, but likely will include the hiring of an independent expert to help advise on remedies to the issues identified in the lawsuit. The ACLU of Colorado had previously asked for prioritizing vulnerable inmates for possible release, and when the release or transfer isn’t possible, requiring safe housing conditions that would allow for social distancing, one of the measures health officials say will help reduce the spread of the disease.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants access to Colorado Department of Corrections facilities to assess the COVID-19 spread and prevention measures, a court order requiring specific interventions and a declaration that CDOC has violated the Colorado Constitution.
Motions filed last week by the ACLU of Colorado described an agreement in principle, including officially certifying the “class” of vulnerable prisoners, and set an Oct. 2 deadline to establish a consent decree, which normally spells out specific conditions for the agency involved and can be enforced through further court action.
The lawsuit came as cases of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons were on the rise, in late May, with hundreds of new infections being discovered each week and correctional facilities representing one in every five known cases in the state at the time.
The ACLU initially sought a court order requiring the agency to prioritize medically vulnerable inmates for evaluation for possible release, and when the release or transfer isn’t possible, requiring safe housing conditions that would allow for social distancing, one of the measures health officials say will help reduce the spread of the disease.
A lack of testing in the prisons was also cited in the lawsuit, and the ACLU of Colorado asked for a court order for widespread COVID-19 testing of all prisoners as well as staff. Since then, other correctional facilities have increased testing.
The lawsuit also sought corrective action to be taken against staff who fail to follow infectious disease prevention measures, specifically alleging some prison staff weren’t wearing masks.
The new filings don’t address what conditions are to be included in the consent decree, but describe the need to hire an independent expert to help develop protocols for classifying medically vulnerable inmates and the specific practices that will be agreed to.
The lawsuit followed a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer earlier this year that ordered Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams to provide special protections to medically vulnerable inmates at the Weld County Jail. In that lawsuit, also filed by the ACLU, Brimmer ruled the Weld County Jail must identify inmates who are medically vulnerable, socially distance them and provide them with single cells to the greatest extent possible.
Evan Wyloge for “The Gazette”