Gov. Polis slapped with ACLU suit over COVID-19 in Colorado prisons

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DENVER (KDVR) – The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and a group of attorneys who represent medically vulnerable prison inmates filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis and the executive director of the state’s prison system, asking for some prisoners be released early to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re not saying, ‘open the doors, let everyone out.’ We’re saying, ‘figure out who is at risk. Figure out how to protect them, and figure out who can be safely released,'” said Anna Holland Edwards, one of attorneys named as cooperating counsel with the ACLU.

Holland Edwards called the COVID-19 situation in state prisons “terrifying,” especially at places like the Sterling Correctional Facility, where more than 560 people have been infected, according to the state health department’s outbreak report. At least two people have died.

“Several of our plaintiffs in this case live in Sterling, and they know that they are surrounded by infection,” said Holland Edwards. “They’re basically powerless to protect themselves. They have a cloth mask that they wash in the sink if they can buy the soap to do that, and otherwise, they’re just hoping that it doesn’t hit them and kill them….(they) are not supposed to serve a death sentence from an international pandemic.”

The lawsuit also calls for prison leaders to better identify and socially distance medically vulnerable inmates.

The governor said the state is doing everything in its power to prevent outbreaks in the prisons and to protect the prison staff. He brushed off the notion of releasing prisoners early because of the pandemic.

“The pandemic is no excuse to let criminals out, and I’m not aware of any basis to release offenders of the ACLU’s choosing as somehow an appropriate response to this crisis,” said Polis.

“The prison inmates are guards are wearing masks,” he said. “It’s also important for the residents of Colorado to know that of course, we will vigorously defend against any lawsuit that seeks to turn this pandemic into an effort to release dangerous criminals.”

Polis said he is proud of the state’s prison guards and the director of the prison system.

“They’ve really stepped up from the early days with masks and…isolation plans,” he said. Polis said inter-prison transfers have been limited from the very early days of the pandemic, and isolation protocols have been improved since the crisis started.

However, Anthony Hawkins, who said he was recently released from the Sterling Correctional Facility, said inmates are still nervous.

“Everybody is scared. We don’t know who got it. We hear somebody cough, and we are like, ‘Oh! Why are you coughing? Cover your mouth,’ you know? And it can really cause tension,” he said.

Hawkins said his best friend, Gary Winston, who suffers from COPD and asthma, is still serving the end of his sentence for drug possession. He said some inmates, like Winston, should be released early, especially if they are non-violent.

“A lot of the guys there are mentally and physically deteriorating because they can’t work out, and there’s no communication with their family.”

Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections, issued the following statement via email:

“While I cannot comment on specific ongoing litigation, I can advise that the Department of Corrections is taking the COVID-19 pandemic extremely seriously and has been diligently working throughout this pandemic to protect employees and inmates from this insidious virus, while also balancing public safety needs.”

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