Federal Judge Phillip Brimmer, in a 39-page ruling, required Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams to provide special protection to medically vulnerable inmates in the jail’s custody.
The order came May 11 after a full-day evidentiary hearing the previous day, which concerned a class action lawsuit filed by a team of American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorneys who sought an order to compel the sheriff to comply with public health guidelines, including social distancing, for “all high-risk people” held at the jail, according to a press release from the ACLU of Colorado.
According to the ACLU, the lawsuit alleged that Reams violated the constitutional rights of medically vulnerable people by “failing to identify and provide heightened protections.”
“Weld County’s foot-dragging through March led to its jail being the first one in Colorado to have an outbreak,” said Dan Williams of Hutchinson Black and Cook, who led the ACLU’s litigation team. “Weld County’s lawyer argued that the judge should excuse the sheriff’s failure to take COVID-19 more seriously because there had ‘only been one death.’ Today’s order makes clear that when it comes to COVID-19, half measures don’t cut it. Jails need to take aggressive measures to keep medically vulnerable people safe.”
Although specifically addressing Weld County, the plaintiffs believe the ruling has implications across the state. “This ruling should serve as a warning to sheriffs around the state: The Constitution requires that you take extraordinary measures to protect the persons in your jails who are especially medically vulnerable to COVID-19,” Mark Silverstein, legal director of ACLU of Colorado said.
The Weld County Jail’s capacity is 1,170 inmates, according to the order. The jail is organized by “pods,” which are groups of cells surrounding common areas and have a variety of configurations in terms of size and number of inmates, and include some “dry” cells, which do not have running water or toilets.
Williams said the order should serve as a “critical roadmap” for other sheriffs to follow: it specifies that the jail should identify medically vulnerable people and house them in single cells when possible, improve jail sanitation and hygiene, and provide masks “that are replaced at medically appropriate intervals.”
Williams added that most people in county jails are pre-trial and are housed there because they are unable to post bail. “With COVID-19, being locked in a cell with others under these circumstances has gone from being a bad dream to being a nightmare,” Williams said, adding the case was brought against the Weld County Sheriff “so that this nightmare wouldn’t amount to a death sentence.”
The first “suspected positive” coronavirus case at the jail occurred on March 19, according to the order. Since then, the defendant took steps to reduce the spread of the virus in the jail, the order states. This included conducting screenings at intake to determine whether an inmate has COVID-19 symptoms but does not test for COVID-19 or screen for whether the inmate is medically vulnerable. It also does not provide for any segregation of medically vulnerable inmates.
The Sheriff’s Office has followed orders to reduce the inmate population — reducing it to 478 — and, since March 31, the jail has been under a 23-hour lockdown in which inmates are confined to their cells, “although individuals are let out in certain circumstances, such as if they are housed in a dry cell and need to use the bathroom,” the order states. The order adds that in the cells it is not possible to maintain social distancing.
The judge ordered that by May 21, the jail must implement new policies including ensuring “to the maximum extent possible” medically vulnerable inmates are socially distanced from other inmates, a procedure for medically vulnerable inmates to be “single-celled or otherwise socially distanced” and a policy of enhanced sanitation procedures in areas where medically vulnerable inmates are housed.
To meet those obligations, “we urge sheriffs” to work with judges, district attorneys and public defenders closely to keep the population within jails down “and avoid incarceration altogether for medically vulnerable people who do not pose a public safety risk,” Silverstein said.
In a written statement, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office announced it had received the order and the office’s staff are compiling data about medically vulnerable inmates at the jail in accordance with the court’s order. “Once that process is complete, the sheriff will decide about future jail operations that take into consideration risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic while also assuring the safety of Weld County residents. The Weld County Sheriff’s Office is not entertaining interview requests at this time,” the statement reads.
“We are so glad the federal court has taken swift action to protect medically vulnerable inmates locked in the Weld County Jail,” Williams said.