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The El Paso County Sheriff's Office spent $80,000 on masks prior to coronavirus outbreak that started in October has infected more than 1,100 staff and inmates. 

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office spent more than $80,000 on face masks from April through September, but did not provide them to inmates in their housing areas before a coronavirus outbreak in October that infected more than 1,100 prisoners and staff.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said the office bought 87,330 masks with $80,594 in federal relief funds and local dollars.

Inmates and jail employees said the masks supplied were not sufficient, the Gazette reported in November. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit in December alleging Sheriff Bill Elder prohibited inmates from wearing masks in their housing, mixed sick and healthy inmates together, and did not provide adequate medical care, among other practices that resulted in "unsafe and dangerous conditions."

El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said in November and repeated Wednesday that providing masks to inmates only when they left their housing was consistent with the statewide mask mandate for residential facilities and group housing. Masks were not used in areas where inmates eat, drink and sleep because it was not feasible, she said. But inmates living together were kept in groups, or cohorts, to limit possible exposure to the virus, she said. 

But Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said the Sheriff's Office practice of not giving masks to inmates in their cells put them at risk of exposure to the virus.

"For an inmate to be in their cell is not the same as one of us being in our home," Donner said. "Air is circulated throughout the facility, so even if people are in their cell, they are breathing the same air that everyone else has already breathed in." 

A court order issued in January requires the jail to provide two masks to each inmate, regular coronavirus testing and temperature screening, among other measures. 

The jail's coronavirus outbreak at one point infected 859 inmates and 66 staff members during one week in November, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the state. The number of infections has dropped substantially since then. As of this week, six inmates and one staff member had the virus, according to the Sheriff's Office website.

The November infections triggered significant spending on preventative equipment and testing, including a large mask order for $12,300 days after the outbreak was reported in October, county spending reports show.

Before the outbreak, the Sheriff's Office spent $5,139 on protective masks and $600 on face shields in late April. A month later, the office spent $15,666 on masks and in July the office spent an additional $9,941 on masks, county finance reports through November show. The office also spent just short of $50,000 on masks in September, Kirby said. 

Masks purchased before October were given to staff to wear throughout their shifts, she said.

Early in the pandemic, masks were provided to inmates who had medical conditions, Kirby said. In July, the Sheriff's Office started providing masks to inmates walking up and down hallways or leaving the jail on trips, such as a court visit, she said. After the outbreak started, for the week of Nov. 1, most inmates were issued a cloth mask, Kirby said. County staff struggled to find disposable masks that did not contain metal, which could be a potential safety concern, Hewitt said. 

The office spent around $30,000 on masks out of the more than $25 million in Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act funding, also known as CARES funding, it received, publicly posted spending reports show. 

The department spent about $10 million of the federal funding on Sheriff's Office staffing, and about $15 million on equipment and facility upgrades, El Paso County spokesman Ryan Parsell said. The spending on staffing allowed the county to roll $10 million in unrestricted funds forward into this year to help cover additional coronavirus-response costs in the Sheriff's Office and other departments, he said.

Much of the money set aside for equipment and facilities was spent on renovating the jail, including $5.7 million on upgrading electronics, $270,541 on inmate property storage and $65,385 on jail ward door painting, spending reports show. The CARES funding had to be spent by the end of the year under federal rules.

Despite the ample funding to respond to the coronavirus and the large masks purchases, inmates and staff told The Gazette proper equipment was not available. One deputy said the jail supplied each employee with thin blue surgical masks, and they were told to use that single mask indefinitely. The Sheriff's Office would replace a mask if it fell apart or was damaged beyond a wearable state, said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing retaliation. 

El Paso County now expects to pay for coronavirus personal protective equipment, such as masks, through a $672,377 state grant that will be fully dedicated to coronavirus-related costs. The office expects to spend $230,142 on masks, according to the grant application. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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