Inmates say they weren’t so much as provided face masks until coronavirus had already begun spreading inside the facility.
Inmates in Colorado’s El Paso County Jail have filed a lawsuit against the local sheriff, claiming the facility’s staff have risked detainees’ lives by failing to provide adequate protection against the novel coronavirus.
According to The Denver Post, the lawsuit was filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, along with three private firms. The complaint recounts how an ongoing coronavirus outbreak at the jail has infected more than three-quarters of the facility’s 1,200 inmates.
The ACLU of Colorado alleges that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department did not provide masks to the general inmate population until November—well after COVID-19 had already begun circulating within the facility.
Before that, inmates purportedly attempted to protect themselves from the virus by creating makeshift masks out of underwear and bedsheets.
However, even these home-made attempts were banned—in some cases, even punished—by El Paso jailers.
“Hundreds of people contracted COVID-19 in the jail and suffered unnecessarily because of the sheriff’s deliberately indifferent failure to protect them from an obvious risk of infection and harm to their health,” said Dan Williams, one of the attorneys representing the inmates. “Meanwhile, those who have yet to contract the virus live in constant fear, as they look around at sick bunkmates, coughing jail staff and general disregard for safety.
“In the time it took to prepare this case,” Williams added, “people who tested negative multiple times have now tested positive and begun to get sick. Urgent is an understatement.”
Williams and the other attorneys further claim that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office failed their obligations to inmates on other fronts, too. The lawsuit asserts that deputies did not separate healthy inmates from sick inmates. In many cases, detainees who did fall ill were left to recover in their bunks with little or no medical assistance.
Jail staff, says the Post, reportedly told concerned inmates that they planned to let coronavirus “run its course.”
The Denver Post notes that most of El Paso County Jail’s inmates remain behind bars simply because they have been unable to post bond—most have yet to be convicted of a crime.
The lawsuit points to the jail’s lack of any coherent mask policy as proof of deliberate indifference.
“While myriad deficiencies caused the outbreak and continue to expose Plaintiffs and class members as alleged herein, the jail’s lack of a mask policy illustrates most vividly Defendant’s deliberate indifference,” the suit says.
The Denver Post observes that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office received more than $15 million in federal funding, earmarked for coronavirus-related purchases.
However, the sheriff spent must of those funds on facility upgrades and other unrelated projects, including an expansion of staff locker rooms.
The lawsuit, says KKTV, is not asking for monetary damages or any other sort of financial award—it is simply requesting that El Paso make basic changes to its coronavirus-containment strategy, such as giving inmates cloth masks and isolating detainees who test positive for the virus.