El Paso County jail visitation closes

Inmates at the El Paso County jail will no longer be able to visit with their family, starting Monday, March 16 amid new precautions set in place to limit the spread of coronavirus. (Courtesy El Paso County Jail)

Jails and prisons must reduce their inmate populations or risk becoming an “epicenter” of COVID-19 infections in Colorado, the ACLU of Colorado and other inmate advocates said in a letter Tuesday to Gov. Jared Polis.

“In these facilities, staff and inmates have close and daily contact, and inmates literally sleep, eat, and use the toilet within a few feet of one another,” the letter read, calling the recommended 6-foot social distancing “literally impossible.”

Without “immediate and bold action,” jails and prisons could drive infection rates across Colorado as inmates come in and are released from the state's 57 jails and 23 prisons.

Although inmates are removed from the public, they are vulnerable to people bringing the virus to their cells.

And while the state prison system has halted in-person visits from the public, prison guards and other employees routinely exit and enter correctional facilities. The virus could also be spread by newly admitted inmates, advocates said.

Aside from “immediately and safely decreasing” the number of people in Colorado’s jails and prisons, the ACLU letter asks courts to dramatically decrease in-person court appearances.

Inmate advocates have warned that if the virus begins circulating in jails and prisons, there is little opportunity to stem the spread.

“If we do not act to protect them, the reality of 'jail churn' will put the rest of the community at risk,” said Colorado State Public Defender Megan Ring, among a broad coalition that signed the letter.

Other groups that signed the letter are the Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Denver Municipal Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Colorado Freedom Fund, and Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, Criminal Justice Act Panel Standing Committee.

The statement came amid signs that changes could be in store at the El Paso County jail, which houses upward of 1,500 inmates.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is working on ways to slow down the number of people booked into the jail, but mandatory arrests will still be made, sheriff's spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said, citing public safety priorities.

The Sheriff's Office is still discussing the possibility of suspending arrests in low-level, non-violent drug and property crimes, she said.  

The jail is also preparing areas to quarantine inmates as the need arises, Kirby said. In the meantime, inmates who show symptoms of COVID-19 are housed in the medical unit.

Kirby said there are “several viable options” in the jail to quarantine inmates but did not elaborate.

Colorado Department of Corrections officials said in a statement issued Tuesday it "does not have any plans to release offenders early,” and reiterated that it has stepped up cleaning efforts in its facilities and provided inmates with soap and hand-sanitizer.

A release of prisoners in response to a public health emergency could set a precedent in Colorado. Some advocates are looking at Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where authorities scrambled to reduce its jail population by 300 inmates since the state's first confirmed case of COVID-19, according to cleveland.com.

The reduction was a result of law enforcement officials cutting down on bringing people into the jail, and prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges working to resolve cases for those already in the facility.

The El Paso County District Attorney's Office and Colorado Springs police haven't said whether they are planning to reduce arrests or seek the release of low-level offenders. Messages left for both agencies weren't returned. 

The criminal courts in El Paso and Teller counties are postponing most new trials through April 3 and limiting their operations to “essential” matters, including bond advisements and measures related to protection orders and emergency custody of children and at-risk people. That's intended to cut down on crowds gathering at courthouses.

Although the courts say they are pursuing steps to limit people from having to come to court, there's little consistency in applying that goal, Colorado Springs attorney Jeremy Loew said. 

"I don’t think there’s a clear directive amongst the judges," Loew said. "Some judges are allowing out-of-custody clients not to appear. Some are requiring an appearance. Some are allowing consent from bondsmen. Others are saying that the attorneys can let their clients know.

"The issue is there’s no unified message amongst the bench here in El Paso County as to what people who are out of custody need to do," he said.

Loew also raised concerns about the inmates being taken back and forth between court and jail. That could be a means for the illness to spread inside the jail, where he said containing a virus would be unlikely. 

"It’s not only concern for the inmates, it’s concern for the guards," Loew said. "There’s only a certain number of sheriff’s deputies. If they start catching it, who’s going to watch the inmates?"

In the absence of a wider policy for incarcerated defendants, attorneys in Colorado Springs are circulating legal paperwork to seek the release of their clients until the threat from the virus has subsided.

Results of those efforts aren't yet clear, but Loew successfully argued for one inmate's release Tuesday.

Fourth Judicial District Judge Michael McHenry agreed to release a man facing fraud allegations on the basis that he was needlessly exposed to a health threat before trial, Loew said. 

In an unrelated statement Monday, a national nonprofit consisting of probation and parole executives called for “severely” reducing the number of people sentenced to community supervision.

An estimated 4.5 million people in community supervision around the country are a “special threat” because they spend short periods in crowded prisons or jails before being released into the community, according to a statement Monday by the EXiT, a group of current and former parole and probation officials.

They recommended replacing visits to parole and probation offices with telephone visits; that authorities “suspend or severely limit” re-arrests of individuals for technical parole violations; and to limit intake of new probationers or parolees “only to those who absolutely need to be under supervision.”  

“There are more people under supervision that is necessary from a public safety standpoint,” the letter stated. “Too many people are placed under supervision who pose little public safety risk and are supervised for excessive supervision periods beyond what is indicated by best practices.”

Guidance applying to local criminal courts instructs people on probation and parole to check in with their officers by phone only if they have flu-like symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the disease. 

Contact Lance Benzel at 719-636-0366.

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