ACLU sues Polis, Department of Corrections over COVID-19 response in prisons

Posted at 11:33 AM, May 28, 2020

DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on Thursday filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates against Gov. Jared Polis and the Department of Corrections over state officials' response to COVID-19 in Colorado prisons.

The suit is seeking an emergency order "to compel the DOC to protect medically vulnerable incarcerated people from COVID-19," an ACLU news release said.

The order being sought would prioritize the release of people who are older, sick or vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19.

“In this unprecedented public health crisis, the harmful trend of mass incarceration has become a direct threat to public health,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in the news release. “Overcrowded prisons are proven hotbeds for transmission, with the two largest outbreaks in the state occurring behind bars. Because the Governor and the DOC are failing to protect incarcerated people, correctional staff and ultimately the public, the court must intervene immediately to save lives.”

The largest coronavirus outbreak in Colorado stems from the Sterling Correctional Facility, a state prison in northeast Colorado, where 539 inmates and 22 employees have tested positive for the virus. Two inmates have died of COVID-19 from the outbreak.

Polis early in the COVID-19 response signed an executive order to reduce prison populations, if possible, to reduce the spread of the virus. But the ACLU in the lawsuit Thursday said less than 300 people have been released from Colorado prisons due to the COVID-19 response, about 2% of the state prison population.

"As a result, thousands of older and medically compromised people remain incarcerated inside small, unsanitary cells with no possibility of social distancing — and with unacceptable risk of serious illness and death," the ACLU news release said. "Without protective measures, including prison population reduction, DOC’s modeling predicts over 16,000 infections within the prison system, and at least 150 deaths of incarcerated people and death of more than 70 staff members."

Polis said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that the state would “vigorously defend” itself against any lawsuit and pushed back on the claims made by the ACLU and on questions about why he did not extend his original executive order.

The governor said he was proud of the work done by jails and prison officials since the early days of the pandemic and the efforts to test inmates and employees at those facilities.

He said he was “not surprised” that “some in the advocacy” community want to make changes during the pandemic but added that he was not going to “use that as an excuse” to make changes he says are unrelated to the pandemic, like sentence commutations.