COVID-19 brings lawsuits against corrections facilities

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Local civil rights activists work to keep detainees safe

As the novel coronavirus continues to wage war on the country, prisons and immigration facilities are seeing an entirely different level of destruction and fear. In spaces that are already confined, overcrowded, and under-resourced, COVID-19 has flourished, and activists across the country are fighting to flatten the curve. In Colorado, several lawsuits have been filed against corrections facilities, citing the denial of human rights.

On March 23, Governor Polis enacted a statewide stay-at-home order, which outlaws large gatherings and encourages people to stay six feet apart. But a six feet personal bubble is hard to come by in corrections facilities. Just two weeks after the stay-at-home order was enacted, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU-CO) filed a lawsuit against the Weld County sheriff for “[failing] to take adequate measures to protect people in jail, correctional staff and the public from COVID-19, resulting in a substantial outbreak in the Weld County Jail.”

Weld County currently has the fourth most cases of COVID-19 in Colorado. Preceding the lawsuit, the Weld County Jail announced that one inmate had tested positive. Just days later, that number rose to fourteen. While prisons usually hold post-trial, convicted persons, the jail system holds pre-trial detainees, often being charged with victimless or non-violent crimes.

According to a 2009 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 42.8% of inmates in state prisons, 38.5% of inmates in federal prisons and 38.7% of inmates in local jails suffer from chronic illness. Such chronic illnesses increase susceptibility to COVID-19 infection. Additionally, viral infections, like HIV and tuberculosis, are more prevalent in incarcerated populations. Living in small, often overcrowded spaces contributes to higher infection rates. As such, corrections facilities are the ideal location for the COVID-19 virus.

In the last few weeks, the overall jail population in Colorado has decreased, a result of Governor Polis’ call to release inmates if possible. While the Weld County Jail has begun to comply with this request and the guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), many high-risk people remain in custody in a jail that does not sanitize its facilities and that does not abide by social distancing.

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