Technically, the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union claims that Weld County, Colorado Sheriff Steve Reams is violating the rights of inmates by keeping them locked up in close proximity to one another during the coronavirus pandemic, but the real goal of the litigation is to reduce the number of inmates behind bars. The lawsuit, filed in federal court, claims that Reams “failed 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.”
According to the class action lawsuit, “high risk” inmates in Weld County are being put at risk by being forced to remain behind bars instead of being set free by the sheriff. In an emotionally wrought argument, ACLU attorneys say that it’s impossible for jails to practice social distancing measures, including keeping inmates six feet away from each other at all times.
Here in Colorado, prior to the pandemic, almost all jails housed incarcerated people in conditions that made physical distancing impossible, with prisoners eating, sleeping and using the toilet within a few feet of one another. However, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Education (CDPHE), and Governor Jared Polis, several Colorado jails have substantially decreased their jail population in an effort to make physical distancing possible and to protect high-risk inmates.
The Weld County Jail, however, is far behind other Colorado counties in efforts to safely lower the jail population, and current conditions in the Weld County Jail pose a serious, obvious, and emergent health and safety risk to inmates, staff and the public. Many inmates are housed at least 3-4 to a small cell, with some cells housing as many as 9 inmates. Until just days ago, inmates ate and recreated shoulder-to-shoulder, with no efforts at physical distancing, even as several inmates showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Now, with recently confirmed cases, inmates are on lockdown 23 hours per day, with some non-symptomatic inmates locked in cells with sick inmates. Only some (but not all) very sick patients are quarantined, and the rest are left in packed cells to spread the virus to others.