DENVER (KDVR) — Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins has announced a new mask policy for inmates that requires face coverings anytime they leave their cells for the general housing area.
The move came just six hours after Diggins spoke with Investigative Reporter Rob Low about what had been the sheriff department’s optional mask policy for inmates.
There are currently 22 active COVID infections among inmates overseen by the Denver Sheriff’s Department: 18 at the downtown detention center and four at the Denver County Jail on Smith Road.
That’s far below the department’s peak but still considered an active outbreak. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Denver Sheriff Department has recorded 938 positive cases.
Last week, the Problem Solvers obtained an Aug. 18 Denver Sheriff Department memo that stated, “The wearing of face coverings by inmates is encouraged and voluntary.”
“Inmates and staff alike, we all have family we want to come home to,” said one Denver Deputy whose identity the Problem Solvers have agreed to protect because he feared reprisals for speaking out.
He told FOX31, on average, 60% of the inmates in the dayrooms wouldn’t bother to wear a face mask because they weren’t required to. Only when inmates go to court or to the nurse’s station have inmates been mandated to wear a mask.
When asked how hard it would be to make the policy mandatory, the deputy responded, “Not hard at all. We control every aspect of their life, from what they eat, wear, when they could go out.”
“Certainly, jails are at an even higher risk of transmission,” said Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health, who added, “Mandatory policies around mask wearing tend to get higher levels of compliance, and we know higher levels of compliance is strongly associated with lower risk of disease transmission.”
“Over half of our deputies that work inside the facilities have been positive with COVID,” said Michael Jackson, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police/Chapter 27 who represents deputies in the union.
He said if the 720 deputies have to wear a mask, then so too should the roughly 1,600 inmates.
“If they (Sheriff Department) take away privileges, they’ll (inmates) definitely be compliant,” said Jackson.
A new memo released Tuesday by Sheriff Diggins states, “Effective Immediately, In addition to the areas where people in custody have already been required to wear masks (corridors, professional visits, visits to medical, etc.) they shall now be required to wear them any time they are away from their bunk area/out of their cell in any common space.”
The change in policy is long overdue according to the anonymous deputy who reached out to the Problem Solvers: “He (Sheriff Diggins) should’ve done that from the very start. I don’t know how his (past) directive supersedes worldwide medical opinion.”
FOX31 wanted to know the mask policies for other law enforcement agencies that house inmates and reached out the Colorado Department of Corrections and sheriff’s offices for the following counties: El Paso, Douglas, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Adams, Boulder, Larimer, Weld, Clear Creek, Eagle and Garfield.
Only Eagle County didn’t respond. The rest all have mandatory mask polices for staff and inmates, except for Arapahoe County.
Like Denver County, Arapahoe County’s policy has been to require face coverings for staff but to make it optional for inmates.
On Thursday, Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said the office will maintain its voluntary mask policy for inmates.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office said 164 jail employees (both sworn deputies and civilians) have contracted COVID since March 2020. Currently, Arapahoe County has 18 positive cases in the inmate population and a total of 252 since the beginning of the pandemic (March 2020), most of which occurred in the last two months.