The El Paso County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that Sheriff Bill Elder’s “disordered, mismanaged” policies led to last fall’s record COVID-19 outbreak at the jail.
The money will cover attorneys’ fees for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which filed suit in U.S. District Court in Denver last December on behalf of six El Paso County jail inmates.
The lawsuit came a month after coronavirus sickened more than 1,000 people incarcerated there, the largest outbreak among jails and prisons in Colorado. It alleged that inmates were deprived of masks for months during the pandemic and even punished for making their own, helping to spawn “mammoth, preventable” crisis.
The sheriff’s for-profit jail medical care provider, Wellpath of Nashville, Tenn., has agreed to pay an additional $30,000 as part of the deal, a copy of the settlement agreement shows.
The deal also leaves in place, through Oct. 4, a series of jail safety improvements meant to keep inmates healthy while the pandemic continues. The sheriff agreed to implement the changes shortly after the ACLU filed suit last year.
“My hope is the county has learned that implementing these procedures makes good sense for the safety of inmates and the guards and others who work in the jail and the public at large,” said Boulder attorney Dan Williams, who partnered with the ACLU on the lawsuit. He urged the county to use them “whether or not there is a declaration of a public health emergency.”
They include a requirement that all inmates be supplied with two free masks and that guards and staff members wear them or face discipline. The deal also provides minimum treatment standards for inmates who test positive for coronavirus.
In exchange for those concessions, the plaintiffs agreed to drop further litigation without a finding of fault by the sheriff.
If Gov. Jared Polis’ emergency public health order remains in effect in October, and conditions deteriorate at the jail, the agreement allows the ACLU to petition the judge to extend the reforms for inmates’ safety, Williams said.
The sheriff's office has previously defended its handling of the threat from coronavirus, saying that it devised its safety protocols behind bars in consultation with the El Paso County Department of Public Health.
Since the start of the pandemic, 1,158 inmates and 187 staff members at the sheriff’s office had lab-confirmed coronavirus infections, the sheriff’s website shows.