DENVER- The order is the first time in Colorado that a judge has intervened in a correction facility’s coronavirus procedures.
The Weld County jail is violating the constitutional rights of medically vulnerable inmates by not adequately protecting them from the coronavirus, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The judge ordered the Weld County Sheriff’s Office to take specific steps to better isolate inmates who are older or have underlying health conditions, including identifying inmates who are at higher risk from the virus.
The ruling is the first time in Colorado that a federal judge has ordered an agency to change how it is managing the virus in its correctional facilities. Judges in other states have intervened in correctional facilities’ operations after similar lawsuits.
“The record indicates that defendant has failed to take adequate measures to protect members of the plaintiff class from COVID-19 given that they face a heightened risk of serious illness or death from the virus,” Philip Brimmer, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, wrote in his order. “Accordingly, plaintiffs’ conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and plaintiffs are entitled to a limited preliminary injunction to ameliorate those conditions.”
As of Wednesday, eight inmates at the Weld County jail had tested positive for COVID-19 and one inmate has died, according to outbreak data from the state health department. Four staff members at the facility have also tested positive.
Seven inmates at the facility, supported by a coalition of advocacy groups and civil rights attorneys, filed the lawsuit against Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams on April 7. The filing asked the judge to intervene on behalf of the inmates, all of whom have underlying health issues or are elderly. One of the inmates is 55 years old and has asthma. Another wrote that he watched sick inmates work in the kitchen, preparing food for the entire facility.
To comply with the judge’s order, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office will have to:
- Create a list of inmates who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 by May 18
- Develop policies to distance the medically vulnerable inmates from others, including during the intake process
- Make a plan to acquire more masks for inmates so that they are not required to use the same masks beyond the recommended length of time
- Create a procedure to better clean the housing areas where medically vulnerable inmates are housed
The ruling sets precedent for other potential lawsuits against Colorado jails, said Mark Silverstein, legal director at the ACLU of Colorado and one of the attorneys on the case. It shows that sheriffs have a constitutional duty to protect medically vulnerable inmates from the virus and has implications for every jail in the state, he said.
“It should serve as a warning to sheriffs around the state,” Silverstein said.
During an April 30 hearing on the case, Reams said that his office had worked hard to protect inmates and staff from the virus. He said planning began in late February, but that the agency had struggled to find masks.
An attorney representing the sheriff’s office defended the agency’s efforts during the hearing and said the judge could not legally hold them to standards created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If this were such a cesspool, as it was described in this hearing, the court would certainly expect that there would be more than one person die in the Weld County jail,” Andrew Ringel said.
The sheriff’s office did not offer a response when asked for comment on the ruling Monday afternoon.
Brimmer noted in his order the difficulty of creating social distancing in jails, but said that the sheriff’s office needed to try harder.
“The COVID-19 pandemic presents a nearly unprecedented challenge to every person and institution in our society, and the Court acknowledges that defendant faces difficult considerations in how best to respond,” Brimmer wrote. “However, prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”