More than half of the inmates who were tested for the coronavirus at the state's largest prison have tested positive, the Colorado Department of Corrections said Friday.
Of the 255 test results that have been finalized, 138 inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility tested positive, according to a news release. Twelve tests came back with inconclusive results and one was unsatisfactory.
Earlier this week, the CDOC and Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment tested 473 symptomatic and asymptomatic inmates from several units in the east side of the facility, where inmates have either tested positive or were previously quarantined. Previously, eight inmates had tested positive.
Authorities are still waiting for the results from the remaining 218 tests.
“Given the insidious nature of this virus we had suspected that despite seeing a relatively low number of inmates with symptoms, the number of positives was potentially much higher,” said Dean Williams, CDOC executive director. “That is exactly why we conducted this large scale testing, so that we can continue to isolate, monitor and treat any inmates who were positive and try to mitigate the spread to others inside the facility.”
Several protocols have been implemented to curb the spread of the virus among staff and inmates, including increased cleaning by staff. All inmates and employees are required to wear face coverings and inmates on the east side of the prison have their temperature checked twice a day.
According to Sandra Winston, whose husband Gary is a 58-year-old prisoner with upper-respiratory problems, inmates who were previously quarantined are now being moved back into regular units. Staff gave him two masks to wear while inside his unit, Winston wrote in a letter Sandra received earlier this week.
Sandra Winston said her husband should be released under guidance issued by Gov. Jared Polis that the state's criminal justice system should work to reduce the number of people detained across the state while maintaining public safety.
“We keep thinking that he was going to be home because he fits the criteria. He’s nonviolent, his case was a (drug) possession. We don’t understand any of this, why he’s not here.”
Jail records show that her husband will be eligible for parole in July. Sandra Winston said he was booked into Sterling on Dec. 25, 2019.
She said she doesn’t know if her husband has been tested for the virus and her calls to the prison have been unsuccessful.
“He committed a crime. He’s not in there for death. This is a death sentence and I just think that nobody cares because he is in prison. They think of him as animals, I guess. He said they are stacked on top of each other. There is no breathing space,” Sandra Winston said.
Records show he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in December 2019 and November 2018 and vehicular eluding in February 2018. All were felony charges.
Since April 14, all prisoners have been required to stay inside their cells unless they need to shower or use the bathroom, the release stated. Meals and medication are delivered to their cells.
No deaths at the prison have been reported.
Concerns that COVID-19 would cause widespread outbreaks in the state’s prison already had prompted state officials to start releasing prisoners early.
A series of executive orders from Gov. Jared Polis that began in April allowed state officials to speed up the release of 148 prisoners so far, Dean Williams, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said during a Facebook town hall last week.
Williams said those releases along with a decision to restrict the flow of inmates going into the prison system from county jails had allowed him and other officials to increase the bed capacity in the state’s prison system.
The prisons typically had been hovering at less than 1% vacancy earlier this year, but that vacancy rate had increased to 9.96%, a CDOC spokeswoman said. The state’s incarcerated population is 16,444, she said.
“The real unvarnished truth is that this pandemic that we have been fighting to keep out of the prison system, it has in fact hit the prisons, and I don’t want to sugarcoat any of that or how serious that is,” Williams said.“But I can tell you that we wake up every morning and go to bed every night figuring out how to fight it. It’s all hands on deck.”
Williams said that under Polis’ executive order state officials are releasing more prisoners into the community on what is known as intensive supervision program inmate status. Technically, those offenders remain inmates, but they are housed in single-family residences in the community and are supervised by ankle bracelet monitors.
Under state statute, local Community Corrections Boards in the past had the authority to veto any proposed releases into what the state calls ISP-I. The executive orders by the governor removed the authority of the local boards to weigh in on those placements.
This week, by executive order, Polis also issued a temporary moratorium on the minimum requirements in state law that guide how the parole department is supposed to supervise ISP-I releases.
The executive orders have generated some pushback from local officials concerned about the loss of local control over the early releases.
In a letter on Thursday that Senior Larimer County Attorney David Ayraud sent to Williams, Ayraud said unilateral placements by the state officials into local communities is contrary to state law. He said state law specifies that local community corrections boards “have the right to accept, reject, or reject after acceptance” the participation of offenders in the intensive supervision program.
Ayraud added in the letter that Larimer County would not accept DOC prisoners without local approval. That same day that Ayraud sent his letter to Williams, the governor issued another executive order further removing local community corrections boards from the ISP-I placement process.
While stating that he was not critical of the governor’s executive order, Greg Mauro, director of Denver’s community corrections, said he believed that generally local authorities should play a role in early releases of prisoners, though he acknowledged these aren’t normal times.
“I think it’s an important part of placing someone in a local community that that local community has a say,” Mauro said.
In other news Friday:
• So far, 674 Coloradans had died of coronavirus, data from the state health department show. More than 12,250 people have tested positive for the disease and 866 remain hospitalized as of Friday. Colorado hospital data shows 72 coronavirus patients have been discharged or moved to lower-level care since Thursday afternoon.
In El Paso County, 72 deaths were reported by the state, up from 55. The state health department announced this week that as of Thursday, it would be adding previous “probable” coronavirus deaths to the state’s total death tally.
The latest deaths could have happened any time over the past month, Polis said at a Friday coronavirus briefing.
• The governor's “safer-at-home” stage has been met with some confusion and even backlash since he first unveiled it.
A Weld County commissioner, for example, said in a recent radio interview that the county will allow any business to reopen next week after the state's stay-at-home order expires.
On the other hand, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Friday morning that the city’s stay-at-home orders will not be lifted until midnight on May 9, a decision he said most mayors around the region agreed with, including in Jefferson and Boulder counties, which have followed Hancock's lead.
State officials have said the past week that counties can apply for variances in the state's guidelines if they meet certain criteria, including proof of a two-week decline in coronavirus case counts. The governor addressed Weld County at the Friday briefing, saying the county’s public health department’s guidance was “reasonable, although not thorough enough.”
"As far as I know, we've not received a request from Weld County," Polis said. "They do not have any kind of unilateral ability to jeopardize the health of residents of Weld County."
• The Colorado National Guard, which was deployed to senior living facilities in Colorado Springs, Broomfield and Thornton this week to help with testing, identified 20 positive coronavirus cases out of 900 tests, Polis said.
• The governor said 33,000 face coverings were delivered by the Colorado Mask Project to people who serve the homeless and most vulnerable.
• "Stay away from the mountains this week," Polis warned Coloradans. "If you are going to recreate outdoors, do so in areas within 10 miles of your home, at least 10 feet away from others, wear your mask if you're in an area with others."
• Colorado's Department of Regulatory Affairs issued 264 emergency health care licenses to "put more workers on the front lines," Polis said.
• Limited visitation, symptom screening and isolation plans that are being ordered for nursing homes also apply to assisted living facilities, Polis said.
• The Deerfield Hills Community Center, at 4290 Deerfield Hills Road, resumed its free monthly mobile food pantry, serving 445 residents Friday, a City of Colorado Springs news release said. The distribution was done by appointment only, it said, which decreased contact between staff and community members.
“The community center, which partners with Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado and Mobilize US, was unable to operate its food distribution in March due to COVID-19,” the statement said. “By moving to an appointment-only distribution, it is continuing to safely serve residents.”
The mobile food pantry is offered on the fourth Friday of every month.
• Beginning May 4, the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Motor Vehicle and Driver’s License office will be open by appointment-only at the Union Town Center location, at 8830 N. Union Blvd., and Southeast Powers location, at 5650 Industrial Place, a county statement said. The Clerk’s recording services will also be available by appointment May 4 at the Citizens Service Center, at 1675 West Garden of the Gods Road.
Beginning May 11, the El Paso County Assessors office and the El Paso County Treasurer’s office, both located at 1675 West Garden of the Gods Road, will be available.
The Gazette's Liz Henderson and Colorado Politics' Alayna Alvarez contributed to this report.