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A cell at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling. (Gazette file photo)

At 84 years old, Anthony Martinez is nearly blind and deaf. He can no longer walk on his own and his kidneys are failing. He struggles to write his own name, his niece says, a sign of brain deterioration after more than 30 years in prison.

And though he seemingly poses little threat to anyone, he remains confined at Sterling Correctional Facility, among those at highest risk of falling victim to COVID-19, which has sickened hundreds of his fellow inmates and killing six at the northeast Colorado prison. 

“I’m afraid the first time I see my uncle is going to be at his funeral,” said his niece, Kelly Brasier, who has been working to secure his early release. 

Martinez is among five medically vulnerable prisoners whose relatives told The Gazette that they fear that they could die because the state has been slow to grant early release for elderly prisoners and those with preexisting conditions.

Other relatives included those of a diabetic man who could die if he misses a single dose of medication; a 73-year-old man with high blood pressure; a 63-year-old man who has suffered two heart attacks; and a younger prisoner who was recently diagnosed with a lung disease.

Their concerns come as coronavirus infections continue to surge through the state Department of Corrections, infecting nearly 1,900 inmates at 17 prisons across the state, according to the department’s website Friday. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 6,000 prisoners have tested positive, data shows.

The active outbreaks are among Colorado’s largest since the COVID-19 crisis began. Prison officials tallied infections among 499 inmates at Limon Correctional Facility; 388 at Bent County Correctional Facility; 319 at Sterling Correctional Facility; 190 at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility; and 120 at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility.

Fifteen inmates with COVID-19 have died, including four in a weeklong span starting in late November.

The prison system has made many efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus within the facilities, which included consulting with public health experts to devise policies that would help protect staff and inmates, said prison spokeswoman Annie Skinner.

The department has invested in rapid tests that can assist with screening the staff on a daily basis, in addition to weekly testing, and inmates are tested on a weekly basis, Skinner said.

Medical personnel regularly monitor inmates who have tested positive, Skinner said, and if an inmate needs a level of care that is beyond what the prison’s medical staff can provide, the inmate is transferred to a hospital.

DOC staff and inmates are given masks and required to wear them, she said. Staff are being “strongly encouraged to wear masks when they are outside of the facility, practice social distancing in the community and continue to regularly wash their hands,” Skinner said.

Coronavirus raging inside prisons

Despite the measures taken by the DOC, there are limits to what can be accomplished given the close quarters in penal institutions, said Anna Holland Edwards, a Denver attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which warned at the pandemic’s onset that crowded, poorly ventilated prisons were at risk of becoming a “petri dish” for the virus, endangering prisoners and employees, alike.

“We’re seeing right now exactly what was predicted: The prisons are raging with coronavirus,” Holland Edwards said.

Among those who predicted "a serious catastrophe" was DOC Executive Director Dean Williams, who wrote in a March 27 email obtained by The Gazette that he was "profoundly concerned" about what would happen if the virus infiltrated the prison system.  “We must bring down the 99% occupancy," he urged.

At the time the email was sent, prison records show there were 17,412 state inmates. That number had dropped to about 14,100 as of Nov. 30, according to data from the DOC website.

Critics say the widening outbreaks behind bars are proof state officials haven’t done enough.

Holland Edwards helped lead the charge in a class-action suit filed in May accusing the state prison system and Gov. Jared Polis of cruel and unusual punishment for failing to protect medically vulnerable inmates.

The action led to a partial settlement with the DOC in November, culminating in a consent decree that strengthened protections for inmates and forced the prison system to better track those considered at high risk of complications or death because of their medical conditions.

“I see the consent agreement as an important part of mitigation and management of prisoners who remain,” Holland Edwards said. “But it needs to be in tandem with significant population reduction.”

She called on Polis to revive an executive order from March that lowered the standards for early parole, granting supervised release to inmates who are at risk of serious complications, and who are judged to be a low risk to the public.

During the three months Polis’ early release protocol was in effect, 249 were released, according to figures supplied by Skinner. That was less than 1.5% of the estimated 17,400 inmates in Colorado’s 22 state prisons and two private prisons as of March, according to a DOC monthly population report.

The governor’s order expired at the end of May, weeks after parolee Cornelius Haney, who was granted early parole under the program, was arrested in the killing of a 21-year-old woman in Denver.

Although Polis offered no explanation for his reversal, the killing is believed to have “factored into” his decision, Holland Edwards said. She called the woman’s death “tragic,” but noted that Haney, 40, was paroled four months before his mandatory release date. He had been sentenced to seven years in prison for taking more than $1,200 in gardening wares from a Home Deport in Aurora, while brandishing a gun. 

Records show that prison officials deemed Haney a high risk of committing a new crime, but the DOC's medical staff forwarded him to the parole board for a potential special needs medical release, which the board granted in April. Haney claimed in a letter that he had vulnerability to the coronavirus due to diabetes and chronic respiratory problems.

Less than a month after his parole, Haney was arrested and charged with murder in the May 9 fatal shooting of Heather Perry in Denver.

His actions, though, shouldn’t prevent the governor from exercising clemency for inmates deemed to be of low risk to public safety, such as Anthony Martinez, said Holland Williams.

“It wasn’t given time to work,” she said of the executive order. “There were people who were granted special needs parole that didn’t get released in time and then never got out. There’s no science-based reason to cancel that order, and it needs to be reinstated.”

On Dec. 2, the ACLU filed a petition asking a Denver District Court judge to compel Polis and Williams to release prisoners who do not pose a public safety risk in a bid to help control the virus’ spread.

The pending motion led the court to grant an expedited briefing schedule and order depositions of Williams, a prison warden and a representative of the governor to discuss how the governor and DOC had addressed clemency petitions by inmates. Once briefs are filed in the case, the judge will decide whether to grant a hearing.

Brasier said she’s concerned her uncle isn’t getting adequate care inside the prison. After he was convicted of committing a series of robberies in 1989, he was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, for which he isn't eligible until 2024, court records show.

“I’m ready and able to take him even if he is positive,” she said. “I’m just waiting for the phone call saying come get him.”

In March, in the early months that the coronavirus hit Colorado, civil rights advocates and prosecutors via emails to Polis, members of his staff and state corrections officials pushed for differing responses, records released in response to a Colorado Open Records Act request show.

While religious groups and civil rights attorneys forwarded petitions pushing for the governor and corrections officials to reduce prison populations by releasing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses, the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, an advocacy organization for prosecutors in the state, urged caution.

Tom Raynes, executive director of the council, asked corrections officials to consult the district attorney's offices that had prosecuted anyone given special needs parole consideration due to medical vulnerability.

'Scared for his life right now' 

On more than one occasion, Daniel Janssen has been found unresponsive in his cell in Sterling Correctional Facility due to plummeting blood sugar levels, said his older brother, Bill Janssen.

Since Daniel was 2 years old and diagnosed with type I diabetes, he’s needed twice-a-day insulin shots, on a regimented schedule, for his body to function properly. Inside prison, that’s difficult, Bill Janssen said.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, Bill Janssen and his sisters have been fighting for Daniel’s early release — their biggest fear is that if their brother is too weak to get his shot or sleeps through it, he may die.

He was booked into the prison nearly three years ago after a judge sentenced him to five years for stalking a woman whom he had lived with for 20 years, said his sister, Janice Huggins and court records. The woman has since died, Huggins said.

“He’s been denied early release because he is not over 50,” she said. “I’m thinking, 'OK, he has asthma, he has high blood pressure, he is a complete diabetic — his pancreas doesn’t work at all — but he had to be over 50?'”

Recently, Daniel Janssen, 50, was approved to live with his sister in Denver if he wore an ankle bracelet, and his family was hopeful until he tested positive for coronavirus last Sunday, Huggins said.

Now, there’s no knowing when their brother might come home.

“It’s pretty much off the table until he gets out of that mess and gets a negative,” Bill Janssen said.

He said his brother started to experience symptoms, including a fever, headache and lack of smell and taste, after he was forced to work in the kitchen.

“He’s scared for his life right now,” Bill Janssen said.

Kim Matteo shares similar fears regarding her 63-year-old brother, Kevin Bretz, who is also incarcerated at Sterling Correctional Facility. Matteo said her brother has had two heart attacks since 2012, is diabetic, uses a wheelchair and has kidney issues.

Bretz has served more than 30 years in prison for a sexual assault, court records show.

Last week, Bretz told his sister he had tested positive for the virus and was experiencing symptoms including a 103-degree fever, a headache and pain in his lungs.

“I’ve been blowing up telephones and sending off emails since March to get my brother released because of his health conditions and they have all fallen on deaf ears,” Matteo said, adding that her brother has been denied a special needs parole four times.

“I’m feeling hopeless,” she said.

The virus puts 73-year-old James Nash, along with approximately 1,230 additional prisoners in Colorado older than 60, among those who face a heightened risk of complications from COVID-19.

Nash, who has been incarcerated at Crowley Correctional Facility for aggravated robbery, is anemic and has high blood pressure, according to his daughter, Sonya Lanotte and court records.

“He doesn’t know if he’s going to die in that place or not,” she said.

Polis: Prisoners not among first

This month, state public health officials released a draft vaccine distribution plan that had prisoners and others living in “congregate” housing, such as university students, in line to receive the vaccine before some other high-risk groups, such as the elderly and people at risk for virus complications.

But the plan was changed after it drew criticism, with Polis saying no one should be “given advantage” because they’re incarcerated.

Holland Edwards argued that Polis ignored the advice of the state’s top health experts in bowing to political pressure.

“The governor seems committed to following the public health science in all areas, for free citizens, but does not show that same commitment when it comes to incarcerated citizens.”

In a Dec. 7 letter to chief judges across Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition echoed calls to prioritize prisons along with others living in group environments, calling it critical to halting the state’s crisis.

“Prisons have much higher transmission rates expressly because they, like other congregate living environments, have a high density of people living together with little or no ability to social distance or otherwise engage in other preventive measures,” the letter said.

Among those caught in the churn of coronavirus transmission were prison employees, who, in turn expose others in the community, the letter argued.

As of Friday, 452 DOC employees were on leave, including 245 with active infections, according to its website. Their absence has put a strain on security and medical care, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition argued.

“Only widespread vaccination of people in prison will resolve the health and safety crisis,” the group said.

While Colorado’s plan for the rollout of vaccines doesn’t prioritize inmates, other states do. In Massachusetts and South Carolina, prisoners are listed in the first group to get a vaccine.

The DOC plans to distribute vaccines to its inmates according to the plan set by the state’s public health department, which predicts the general population will receive a vaccine by next summer.

Those at a higher risk to the virus, including people 65 and older and anyone with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, significant heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer, or are immunocompromised, could receive a vaccine in the spring, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website.

Skinner said the department has started identifying inmates who might meet the high-risk classifications and will consult with “an independent expert to advise on policies and procedures related to identification of medically vulnerable, high-risk classifications and COVID treatment protocols.”

A 51-year-old woman, who spoke on the basis of anonymity out of fear of retaliation by staff at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, said her son is tested every Monday and placed in a cell with other prisoners who also test negative.

Though he hasn’t tested positive for the virus, she still fears for her son, who now carries an oxygen tank through prison after he was diagnosed with restrictive lung disease while he was incarcerated, she said.

Due to delayed medical tests, her son is still unsure of the cause of the disease, but a pulmonologist said a lung transplant could be necessary. The disease puts him at a higher risk of the virus.

“I don't want him to die there,” she said. “They didn’t get the death penalty, but they’re getting it.”

Reach Olivia at olivia.prentzel@gazette.com.

Twitter: @oliviaprentzel

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