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Colorado, ACLU reach deal to protect inmates from virus

Posted at 2:33 PM, Nov 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-14 16:33:14-05

DENVER (AP) — The state corrections department would hire a consultant to help it identify and protect medically vulnerable inmates from the coronavirus under a proposed settlement of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, it was announced Friday.

The deal, which must be approved by a judge, also requires the state to do several things it already says it is doing, like providing masks to inmates, conducting wide-scale testing, prioritizing placing those most at risk of being harmed by the coronavirus in single cells and conducting audits of prisons to ensure compliance with policies aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.

However, in the proposed deal filed in Denver District Court, the ACLU says that many of the actions taken by the department have only been partially or sporadically implemented.

If the order is signed by a judge, either side would be able to ask the judge to enforce its terms.

“This resolution gives essential protections to thousands of people who are incarcerated and terrified of this deadly virus, and could not have happened without the significant efforts by all of the State’s leadership from the beginning of this case,” Anna Holland Edwards, an attorney who worked on behalf of the ACLU on the case, said in the announcement. “That cooperative approach and the willingness to work together to improve the conditions for incarcerated people as well as staff is to be commended.”

The corrections department’s executive director, Dean Williams, said the deal was a win for the people of Colorado.

“This provides our Department with some additional tools to combat COVID-19, including access to the advice and assistance of an expert in the field, which is something that we were contemplating doing regardless of any lawsuit. The settlement also reaffirms that CDOC is on the cutting edge and taking appropriate preventive measures to protect inmates, staff, and the community,” he said in a statement.

The settlement requires that the state spend up to $100,000 for the medical consultant, with any cost above that being split between the state and the ACLU. The consultant will advise the department on how to prioritize which medically vulnerable inmates should be placed in single cells.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the department and Gov. Jared Polis in May. The case against Polis, seeking to get more medically vulnerable inmates released from prison, will continue. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately provide a comment on that case.

There have been 2,385 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Four of them have died, most recently in October, when a 58-year-old man from the Fremont Correctional Facility near Canon City died after being hospitalized.

In a letter to family and friends of inmates last month, Williams said inmates have only been eating and recreating with those in their living units and staff members are being assigned to work in the same units as much as possible to limit the spread of the virus.