El Paso County jail

At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak at the El Paso County jail Nov. 8, there were 859 inmates and 66 deputies who tested positive, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office’s website.

Eight months into the pandemic and four months after the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office received up to $15.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds, the county jail became the site of one of the state’s largest coronavirus outbreaks, with staff and inmates stating that they were not given adequate equipment to protect themselves. 

The more than 1,200 inmates that pass through the jail on any given day were not given a mask until the week before last — after the virus had infected hundreds of inmates and dozens of deputies. Before the week of Nov. 1, masks were only provided when moving throughout the jail. 

Four inmates interviewed by The Gazette said their requests for masks were repeatedly denied and it was only after they tested positive for the virus that they received a cloth mask.

The lack of masks violates the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance for detention facilities, which states that facilities should provide inmates with masks at no charge and frequently wash them.

“It is really astonishing that no masks were provided to the prisoners until after it had become clear that there was a full-fledged massive outbreak at the jail,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberty Union of Colorado. “It has been COVID-19 101, basic remediation that masks and social distancing are the imperatives.”

Complaints from inmates at the El Paso County jail come as the ACLU settled a lawsuit with the Colorado Department of Corrections, resulting in an order for prison staff to protect medically vulnerable inmates from COVID-19.

The ACLU of Colorado sent a letter to sheriffs across the state in June, including El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, summarizing the “constitutional and societal obligation” to mitigate the spread of the virus within their jails. Among the recommendations were to facilitate social distancing to the extent possible, reduce jail populations and to institute “a plan to obtain sufficient and adequate masks.”

“(Sheriff Elder) succeeded in reducing the jail population considerably during the pandemic. So it is both disappointing, astonishing and surprising that the sheriff could be so negligent and so reckless in failing to distribute masks to prisoners,” Silverstein said.

El Paso County Public Health and the Sheriff's Office have been working closely together since the start of the pandemic to implement a number of mitigation measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said Saturday in response to The Gazette's request for comment.

"The sheriff is disappointed that Mr. Silverstein would assume to have any idea how much work was being done by him, the EPSO staff, El Paso County Health, numerous subject matter experts, doctors, and the CDPHE without having even visited the facility or having no direct knowledge of how effective our methods have proven to be," said Sgt. Deborah Mynatt in a statement. "... El Paso County Public Health toured our jail a number of times and ... they were looped in and invited to numerous planning meetings throughout this process from the start of the pandemic and still today."

A spokeswoman with the El Paso County Public Health Department confirmed the department has been providing guidance to Elder and his staff on how "to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail."

"It should be noted that the prevention measures that were put in place were able to prevent an outbreak for roughly the first six months of the pandemic," Michelle Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the health department, said in a statement.

The outbreak at the El Paso County jail rapidly became the second-largest outbreak in the state in early November when 690 inmates out of 1,229 in custody became infected, marking a nearly tenfold increase in five days and surpassing other outbreaks in penal institutions reported by state public health officials, data show.

At the outbreak’s peak on Nov. 8, there were 859 inmates and 66 deputies who tested positive, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office’s website.

The high number of infections came at a time when there was an unprecedented number of positive cases in the community and, for that reason, Hewitt said, it wasn't surprising to see outbreaks in settings such as the jail.

The numbers plummeted to below 200 inmates and 19 deputies on Wednesday, the latest update provided by the Sheriff’s Office, after several inmates finished a quarantine period and retested negative for the virus, said Jacqueline Kirby, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

Kirby said that the jail had a “limited supply” of personal protective equipment on hand at the beginning of the pandemic and the masks they had were considered contraband due to the pieces of metal that were placed inside.

Identifying and distributing 1,500 metal-free disposable masks per day "was not feasible" without a negative impact on the supply then available to health care, first responders, law enforcement and schools, Hewitt said. 

That decision had consequences, said Silverstein: “The staff expose prisoners, but the prisoners expose the staff. And the staff, they go home. They take it to the communities, they take it to their families,” he said, referring to Jeff Hopkins, 41, a jail deputy who died in April of complications of COVID-19.

Funds used for capital improvements

Starting July 24, inmates were given a mask as soon as they were escorted out of the ward, Kirby said. While in their wards, masks were not given to inmates,  which, Hewitt said, is consistent with the statewide mask mandate for all other residential facilities and group housing.

The lack of masks — and the sheriff’s complaints over the high costs of testing — persisted despite the Sheriff’s Office receiving millions in federal coronavirus relief funds. The office used much of that money on capital improvements in the facility, including a $2.2 million renovation of the jail’s lobby and employee locker rooms.

The lobby renovation will erect walls and service windows to create a physical separation between workers and the public, and the expanded locker rooms will allow for physical distancing as employees change into their uniforms, sheriff's officials said, explaining how the construction complied with the strings attached to the federal COVID dollars.

The office also planned to use $6.6 million of the aid money for security upgrades at the jail, including new surveillance cameras and replacing faulty cell doors and locks that allowed inmates to “pop” out of their cells.

The upgrades would prevent inmates who become infected with COVID-19 from getting out of their cells and intentionally spreading the virus to others — thus meeting the federal requirement the money be used to offset expenses directly related to the pandemic, sheriff's officials said.

“We got intel that some groups out there might use COVID-19 as a weapon,” Bureau Chief Joseph Roybal told The Gazette in June, when the jail had no positive cases among inmates. An Oct. 21 project update, obtained by the newspaper, said 20-30 contractors were on site and that the project was on schedule to be completed this year.

Money was also used to install a new air filter in the ventilation system that is intended to reduce the risks of airborne disease, sheriff's officials said.

Criminal defense attorney Josh Tolini said the Sheriff’s Office deserved credit for reducing its jail population and pushing to release nonviolent offenders from custody as the virus began its spread through Colorado.

This year, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reduced the population at the jail by more than a third, from an average daily population of roughly 1,500 to less than 1,000.

But the lack of masks for inmates was “concerning,” particularly given the millions in federal coronavirus aid that went to the Sheriff’s Office, Tolini said.

“It would seem to be common sense that using some of that money for masks for inmates would have prevented a lot of the issues that we have right now,” he said.

Tolini added: “You can get 100 masks for $25 at Costco. That would have been something that would have been very beneficial for everybody. There’s lots of masks that don’t have wires in them.”

Since the outbreak was first reported on Oct. 26, the Sheriff's Office has provided inconsistent reporting on its website, revising its numbers of inmates reportedly testing positive for the virus and claiming errors in data entry.

“There are definite question marks regarding the jail’s accounting of the outbreak,” Tolini said. “Until we have some pretty consistent testing and some more transparency, I think that’s going to be a concern for everybody."

‘Didn’t see this coming’

Two El Paso County jail employees, who asked that their names not be revealed due to fears of retaliation, expressed frustration with how management handled coronavirus issues within the facility.

The employees said that despite the Sheriff’s Office receiving federal coronavirus relief aid,  including an additional payment that raised the total to around $15 million, little of that money had gone toward protective gear for deputies or inmates.

One jail employee said that it was especially galling that some of the construction included lock boxes for eventual purchases of iPads for inmates to use while, for months, deputies and inmates waited for better protective masks and gear. Only recently, after the virus began to spread dramatically at the jail, has the jail's management begun to provide better equipment, the employees said.

Deputies and jail employees have been instructed to refrain from using the water fountains because inmates brush their teeth in the fountains. Deputies say they must work 12-hour shifts without being provided water.

In some instances, the construction at the jail forced the relocation of inmates from individual cells with locked doors to open bay population areas where up to 10 inmates sleep near one another on bunk beds in close proximity. Those areas don’t have cell doors, and in such an environment the inmates can’t socially distance from one another, the two jail employees said.

“The new doors and camera systems have caused even more shuffling of inmates as entire wards have needed to be closed down for the construction,” one deputy said. “We have had an increase of assaults in the tower because many of the inmates that need to be behind a door were put there while the ward they should have been in was being worked on.”

Protective equipment for deputies remained deficient even after Hopkins died April 1 after contracting COVID-19, the employees said. After that death, deputies didn’t receive N95 masks, the disposable, filtering mask that has become the world’s most reliable defense against the virus. They instead were using thin, blue surgical masks, which aren’t designed to protect as rigorously as the N95s.

One deputy said that months ago the jail supplied each employee with the less-protective surgical masks, and they were told to use that one singular mask indefinitely.

“There was no way to even sanitize them, and the only way we could get a new one is if the one we had literally fell apart,” one employee said. “Even then we had to show it was damaged beyond wearable state and provide it as proof before we were given a new one.”

The employee said that it was only as the problems at the jail recently became more acute that the jail started supplying a new surgical mask to deputies once weekly. And in the last week of October the jail’s management finally began supplying deputies two N95 masks and began instructing deputies to use a sanitizer machine that uses ultraviolet light to clean masks at the end of a shift.

“One has to wonder why they didn’t prepare better for this,” one employee said. “I guess they didn’t see this coming or something.”

This week, full personal protective equipment suits finally arrived for the deputies, but management instructed them that the use of the suits was optional, the employees said.

In the last week of October, 64 inmates tested positive for the virus, and those inmates were relocated to an open bay area of the jail that had been set up as a quarantine wing for inmates that had tested positive and for inmates that had symptoms of COVID-19 but hadn’t tested positive.

When those 64 inmates were moved into that wing of the jail that had been established as a quarantine area, the symptomatic inmates that hadn’t yet tested positive were moved into other open bay areas of the jail housing other inmates, perhaps increasing the spread of the virus, the jail employees said.

One jail employee also said there are fears that inmates working in the kitchen might have contaminated meals they were preparing with the virus. On October 30, several inmates working in the kitchen complained that they were sick and they were taken to the nursing staff for review and then sent back to continue working in the kitchen, that employee said. The next day seven of those inmates that had been working in the jail tested positive for the virus, according to the employee

As of late Thursday, two jail employees remained hospitalized in intensive care, one of which has had to be intubated, according to those familiar with the situation.

‘Too little, too late’

Inmate Claudia Dimas etched “Think Positive” in black ink over her white cloth mask — an artistic addition she said was mostly done in sarcasm rather than encouragement.

“I’m already positive, so this is a joke in here,” Dimas told The Gazette during a video call Wednesday from the jail. 

Dimas said on Nov. 1 nearly a dozen National Guard employees, donning masks, face shields, latex gloves and blue medical gowns, administered tests to the inmates in her unit, all of whom were still without masks.

She said her repeated requests for a mask were denied until Nov. 4, three days after she was tested and the day after she found out that three inmates in her section who were allowed to leave the ward to work in the laundry room each day had tested positive.

Dimas, 51, described conditions in her ward’s bathroom as subpar with leaky toilets and broken sinks. In order to properly wash her hands, she said she must twist a paper towel and dip it into the dispenser to get soap. She said her section of the jail is given two bottles of cleaning products to sanitize the area daily, though it is not enforced, she said.

Kirby said staff continues to post signage in the facility to educate inmates on the importance of washing their hands, covering their coughs and sneezes and to distance themselves from others when not in their cells or bed areas.

“We provide liquid soap in the common areas and each inmate is issued their own bar soap along with a hygiene kit upon admittance into the jail,” Kirby said in an email statement.

Dimas said social distancing is impossible, though, as inmates are forced to sit in close quarters at the tables inside her ward. .

She said jail staff began collecting all inmates’ masks each night for washing. The next morning, the masks would be passed out again, at random. She was also given the option to wash them herself and wait near her bed until it dried, she said.

“It was like following a drunk driver home. It was too little, too late,” Dimas said of the masks. “While I’m glad they made this gesture, it’s laughable.”

Dimas, who was booked into jail on July 19, has had her court date postponed several times due to the outbreak. She said she was given cough syrup and Tylenol after her family had made several calls to the jail, but said she still has trouble breathing and has had a headache for nearly two weeks.

“I feel like I have been brought in here for a death sentence. I have health issues and respiratory problems. No one cares,” she said.

James “Hunter” Gantt, 27, said he got a mask after he tested positive for the virus along with 73 others in his section. Six tested negative, he said.

“It’s doing no good now. It’s already in here,” Gantt said. “They are bringing people who aren’t positive with people who already are,” he said, alleging that inmates are moved directly from the booking procedures to the jail where he is located.

Kirby denies this allegation, stating that depending on an inmate’s responses to COVID-19 screening questions during the booking process, they will be housed in one of the jail’s several isolation wards.

Attorney Will Cook said he had a client who complained of difficulty breathing at the jail and was taken by ambulance to UC Health Memorial Hospital Central last week. He had been in the hospital three days, as of Thursday.

Cook said the man told him he had tested positive for coronavirus and received a cocktail of drugs that improved his symptoms.

“I think it’s problematic when there’s a statewide mask mandate in effect, and yet we crowd 1,200-1,300 (inmates) into a small space and they’re not provided masks,” Cook said. “I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anybody that this thing blew up like it did.”

Iyan Murray, who has been in jail since August, said he requested a mask several times before he tested positive, noting a request he made after a deputy was coughing and inmates started to complain of severe headaches days later.

Last week, he said he had severe headaches, trouble breathing and cold sweats. At night, he said he still has trouble breathing and feels pressure on his heart.

“‘Don’t cry. That’s what they told us,’” Murray, 42, said.

Murray, who shares the same eight sinks and five toilets with nearly 70 other men, and sleeps within feet of them in an open area, said social distancing is impractical. Despite the cleaning by inmates each day, close quarters allow the germs to spread easily.

“We just need help. We need somebody to stand up for us, fight this jail and hold them accountable,” Murray said. “Sooner or later, somebody is going to die in here from the virus. It’s going to happen.”

Reach Olivia at olivia.prentzel@gazette.com.

Twitter: @oliviaprentzel

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