Nov 20, 2020 | NEWS | By Lily Weaver | Illustration by Xixi Qin
Last May, the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), alleging failure to protect medically vulnerable people from the COVID-19 virus in Colorado prisons. With two court filings on Nov. 13, the ACLU of Colorado announced the May lawsuit’s resolution. The DOC and ACLU asked the Denver District Court to enter a “consent decree,” which records the order’s terms.
The order requires that incarcerated people have access to masks and hygiene supplies. It also prioritizes safe housing for medically vulnerable people, improves conditions during COVID-19 related lockdowns and responses to COVID-19 related complaints, and works to implement system improvements that will increase the parole process’s efficiency.
Other key provisions include “ensur[ing] all incarcerated people receive two free bars of soap per week and two free masks, ensur[ing] routine cleaning of common spaces, prohibit[ing] co-pays for COVID-19 related medical visits, required testing for all symptomatic people and wide-scale prevalence testing after any staff or incarcerated person tests positive, and provid[ing] for reasonable access to facilities, outdoor recreation, and legal materials during COVID-19 related lockdowns after DOC has had time to test and cohort.”
According to the ACLU of Colorado’s cooperating attorney, Anna Holland Edwards, “this resolution gives essential protections to thousands of people who are incarcerated and terrified of this deadly virus, and could not have happened without the significant efforts by all of the State’s leadership from the beginning of this case.”
The resolution comes as COVID-19 cases are rising across Colorado prisons, similar to the rest of the state. There are currently active outbreaks in at least six Department of Corrections facilities, with more than 700 active cases among incarcerated people and 130 active cases among staff.
Although the case against the DOC was resolved with these filings, the unnecessary outbreaks and deaths among incarcerated people and prison staff have not stopped. Merely improving prison conditions will not eliminate the threat of COVID-19 given the size of the current prison population.
ACLU attorneys filed an amended complaint on Nov. 16 alleging that Gov. Jared Polis continues to violate the Colorado Constitution by failing to exercise his powers to reduce the prison population amid the pandemic.
The amended complaint states, “Simply put, Defendant Polis knows the only way to mitigate the spread of this virus through Colorado’s prisons and into Colorado’s communities is by ‘reducing the potential population a person can infect,’ and that unless Governor Polis authorizes reducing the number of people in Colorado’s prisons, outbreaks will continue, and people will die.'”
While the consent decree provides increased protections against COVID-19 for incarcerated people, the inability to social distance in a crowded prison will continue to contribute to the virus’s spread. Activists argue the only way to successfully reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to decrease the prison population, a power that lies solely in Polis’s hands.