By Riley Prillwitz | Illustration by Xixi Qin
With the majority of the country on some type of lockdown and most Americans forced to adopt new routines to fit social distancing regulations, many of us have had to discover new pastimes to fill our extra free time.
For the many Americans who turned to Netflix’s new docu-series, “Tiger King,” the news of Joe Exotic’s recent self-isolation in the Grady County Jail to avoid exposure from other inmates may have sparked curiosity about inmates in Colorado. How are they being affected by COVID-19?
On March 25, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced his release of Executive Order D 2020-016. This order is meant to guide and instruct the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) on how to keep COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, from wiping out entire prisons. The main points consisted of suggestions to slow prisoner intake, award earned-time credits for release, and filter out low-risk prisoners to house arrest.
“The potential spread of COVID-19 in facilities and prisons poses a significant threat to prisoners and staff who work in facilities and prisons, as well as the communities to which incarcerated persons will return,” the order stated.
To date, no prisoners have been released by CDOC.
“This Executive Order from the Governor allows us to pursue potential options to manage our prison population without jeopardizing safety during this crisis,” said CDOC director Dean Williams in a statement. “We will be working diligently over the coming days and weeks to put into action the directives from the order in a thoughtful and measured way. We are continuing to do everything within our power to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in our facilities and offices, and remain committed to supporting our staff, inmates, and parolees during this time.”
By April 1, the Denver Post reported a drop in Colorado jail populations by about a third compared to pre-coronavirus populations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) reported that the population in county jails has dropped below 10,000 prisoners, which has not happened in at least a decade.
While these numbers seem promising for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners, prisons in Colorado, as well as higher-populated jails, are still high-risk.
“While some jails are seeing appropriate depopulation, others have seen very little change in numbers of incarcerated people and the results could prove catastrophic,” ACLU of Colorado senior staff attorney and senior policy counsel Rebecca Wallace said, as reported by The Colorado Trust.
By April 3, two lawsuits were filed by the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel urging further protection measures to be taken in prisons.
The ACLU of Colorado stated that “the petitions ask the Court to immediately issue guidance to safely limit the number of people (1) arrested and booked into jail, (2) held in jail pretrial on unaffordable money bond; and (3) held on certain sentences.”
Health experts from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus reported that unless prisons and jails depopulate to the extent that inmates and guards could properly social distance, there was a large chance that COVID-19 could drastically affect those in the prison environment.
Following these concerns, the ACLU of Colorado, along with Denver Civil Rights Attorneys, filed a class action lawsuit on April 8 against the Weld County Sheriff for an Emergency Order after he failed to comply with state social-distancing guidelines, resulting in an outbreak in the county jail.
For now, the plan for prisons is disjointed. CDOC has chosen to drastically reduce prison transfers and test incoming inmates to larger prisons. Inmates have also been moved around to better execute social distancing. Yet they have no plans to release any current prisoners to lower prison population.
“There is always a political risk in letting people go free,” explained Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit mass-incarceration research and advocacy organization based in Massachusetts, as reported by The Colorado Trust.
It is less politically damaging to release someone from jail, where people are held while awaiting trial or for being convicted of minor crimes. In contrast, people in prisons are serving a court-ordered punishment.
“If an offender tests positive, they will isolate in place,” said Annie Skinner, the public information officer for CDOC, in an email to the Daily Record on Monday. “They will not move to a different facility.”
While Colorado has taken steps in protecting its inmates from the current pandemic, there is still a greater risk for someone exposed in prison than someone who is able to self-isolate in a safer environment at home.
“Inmates are forgotten as far as taking care of them in situations like this,” said Becky Trammell, Ph.D., associate dean of Metropolitan State University’s college of professional studies, who has spent much of her career studying prison culture and violence, the Colorado Trust reported. “People have a very negative attitude toward prisons in general. If push comes to shove, things are going to get pretty ugly for the inmates, simply based on that.”