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Colorado Moves to Settle Lawsuit Challenging Handling of Coronavirus in State Prisons

— August 27, 2020

The Colorado Department of Corrections has reached a tentative settlement with inmates who sued the states over concerns about exposure to novel coronavirus.

According to The Gazette, the lawsuit was first filed in May. In the initial complaint, inmates expressed frustration with the Department of Corrections’ apparent unwillingness to alter operating procedures to protect inmates who are “at substantial risk of severe illness or death” if they were to contract COVID-19. Left to fend largely for themselves, inmates and their attorneys characterized the lack of response as a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The class action, notes The Colorado Sun, was spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union. While building its case against the state, the ACLU identified and classified inmates at elevated risk from coronavirus. They included prisoners with underlying health conditions such as bronchitis, hypertension, asthma, and pulmonary disease, along with inmates over the age of 55.

While details of the settlement are not yet available, the ACLU had argued prisoners’ request to be granted early or temporary release to home confinement. While such requests have been made in other states, they tend not to be popular either with Corrections officials or the public.

An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via
An illustration of the novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for COVID-19. Image by CDC, via

In a late May article, The Gazette recalled how Jared Polis had issued a round of executive orders granting prison administrators additional leeway in determining whether to grant vulnerable inmates parole or transfers to residential confinement. But Polis opted now to renew prison-specific provisions of his executive orders after a parolee—who was released over coronavirus concerns—was involved in the shooting of a young woman in Denver.

Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections told The Gazette that the state had granted early release to about 290 inmates.

But coronavirus has spread quickly in jails and prisons across Colorado and the United States—inmates often lack access to hygienic supplies, and are, by nature of their incarceration, unable to practice adequate social distancing. The Gazette noted that analyses of COVID’s potential impact on the prison system had estimated that hundreds of detainees, along with dozens of guards, could die from the disease if Colorado did not move to significantly reduce the number of people behind bars in the state.

It now remains to be seen whether Colorado will grant any more prisoners early release.

However, the ACLU signaled in court last Thursday that it had reached an agreement—at least “in principal”—with the state. Court documents indicate that Colorado will, at the very least, follow the American Civil Liberties Union’s recommendation of identifying a vulnerable “class” of prisoners. October 2nd has been proposed as a tentative deadline for issuing a consent decree to implement any changes in living conditions or inmate status necessary to protect prisoners and guards from novel coronavirus.

The Gazette adds that the news of the preliminary settlement follow U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer’s ruling against Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, in which Brimmer ordered special protections for medically vulnerable inmates in the county jail.


ACLU lawsuit claims ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment of Colorado prisoners during COVID-19 pandemic

Colorado headed toward settlement in lawsuit over handling coronavirus in state prisons

Colorado officials reach settlement over prison inmates vulnerable to coronavirus

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