CREEC and Others Call on Governor Polis to Stop COVID-19 From Becoming a Death Sentence for People in Prisons

As COVID-19 outbreaks continue to climb in Colorado prisons, CREEC joined others calling on Governor Polis to assert his executive authority and clemency powers to protect the most vulnerable people in prisons before it’s too late. The letter cited new data proving that his actions to date are insufficient to protect the lives of elderly and medically compromised people in prisons, correctional staff, and the community at large.

While Colorado’s COVID-19 curve may be flattening for those who are free, the public health crisis is reaching a fever pitch for people who are incarcerated. A recent article revealed that testing at the Sterling Correctional Facility, now the site of the state’s 2nd largest COVID-19 outbreak, has confirmed that at least 278 people there — 266 incarcerated people and 12 staff members — have tested positive for the virus, many of whom are asymptomatic. At four other U.S. state prisons, 96% of the nearly 3,300 people who tested positive also showed no symptoms for the virus, further illustrating that simply isolating those who seem sick from those who appear well is not enough to halt the spread. At least one man died from contracting COVID-19 at Sterling — he was 86-years-old.

ACLU-Colorado and eight criminal justice and indigent defense organizations sent a letter to the Governor on March 17 urging him to take decisive action to depopulate prisons and jails. The Governor later issued an Executive Order, which granted Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams the broad authority to consider releasing more than 7,000 people. But that order has been ineffective. More than a month after the Governor’s executive order was issued, the CDOC has only released around 200 people, with over 16,000 remaining behind bars and prisons still at over 90% capacity. According to the CDOC’s website, so far at least 25 CDOC staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and 57 are on leave related to possible symptoms or exposure. These numbers, like those at other facilities around the country, are almost certainly a dramatic undercount of the number of infected staff members statewide.

“It is impossible to take the steps necessary to protect against the spread of this terrifying virus unless the prison population is significantly reduced,” said Amy Robertson, Co-Executive Director of Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.  “We urge the Governor and Director Williams to use well-established powers to head off this crisis.”

Today’s letter makes specific recommendations for actions by Governor Polis that would substantially and safely reduce the prison population. In following these recommendations, Governor Polis would join the ranks of Governors from a dozen states who have worked to release thousands of incarcerated people on an emergency basis to mitigate disaster, including New York, Kentucky, and Maryland. In Colorado, the numbers prove that left to its own devices, the CDOC has not effectively and substantially reduced the prison population and the Governor must intervene.

Other signatories of the letter are the: Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Center for Health Progress, Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, Black Lives Matter 5280, Colorado Lawyers Committee, Office of Alternate Defense Counsel, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Working Families Party, Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition, Second Chance Center, Colorado Freedom Fund, Criminal Justice Act Panel Standing Committee and ACLU of Colorado.

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