Colorado places a moratorium on new prison intakes during pandemic

The plan comes as part of an executive order that includes using Centennial South to quarantine inmates with COVID-19

The newly built recreation yard at Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, on July 19, 2019. Gov. Jared Polis wants to use the prison for potentially quarantining inmates with COVID-19. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order on Wednesday that effectively blocks new inmates from entering the state’s prisons in an effort to manage a potential COVID-19 outbreak among those locked behind bars. 

The order is part of a broader plan aimed at driving down the state’s prison population to increase social distancing among inmates as COVID-19 continues to spread in Colorado, surpassing 1,400 diagnosed cases today and leaving 24 people dead, according to state health officials. There are no confirmed COVID-19 in the state’s 57 jails or 22 state prisons, health officials said Thursday morning, but later the same day, the Department of Corrections confirmed a parole officer from the Sterling region has tested positive for the disease. 

“We need to move,” Dean Williams, the director of the Department of Corrections, told The Colorado Independent. “Lives are in the balance in what we do right now.” 

Williams said the order allowing him to deny inmates coming from jails will help drive down the number of inmates entering the state’s prisons by about 150 people per week, basically reducing intakes to zero. Williams said he would still work with jails where there is an overcrowding issue, potentially accepting some inmates. The moratorium, as well as other measures allowing DOC to release inmates sooner and parole more inmates, will allow for better management of staff and resources, he said. 

“I’m at 99% occupancy right now. Most prisons are supposed to operate at 4 to 5% percent vacancy. I would certainly like to get to that mark,” he said. 

Williams said those inmates who are transferred into the prison system will have to be quarantined fo for two weeks at Centennial South, previously known as CSP II in Cañon City, which will operate as the state’s new intake facility. Inmates who may end up being infected with COVID-19 may be isolated in the prison, Williams said. 

CSPII was built in 2010 for solitary confinement but closed two years later when the prison population dropped and the state changed its policy for holding inmates in long-term isolation. Many of the prison’s cells are built to hold one person at a time, which could make it suited for quarantining inmates with COVID-19, a highly infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. 

Lawmakers in February authorized the opening of 650 beds at Centennial South as part of an effort to move inmates out of the state’s three private prisons and into the state system. But the law designated these beds for close custody inmates, which are those who fall under the state’s strictest level of supervision. The executive order would change the law temporarily to allow any inmate to be housed in Centennial South. 

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who sponsored the bill to open the prison, House Bill 1019, supports using Centennial South for quarantining inmates. 

“The virus will strike there,” Herod said of prisons. “I’m encouraged that the governor recognizes this fact and is taking important steps to contain its spread.” 

She said using Centennial South to quarantine inmates “makes sense given that its physical design lends to much better isolation. This is vital and I support it. We must keep offenders and our correctional officers safe and as healthy as possible.”

Before the state re-opened Centennial South in March, the state’s prisons were 99.7% full with 19,586 inmates, according to the latest prison population report

Social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control call for at least six feet of space between people, which is next to impossible in a full jail or prison, criminal justice advocates say. On Thursday, the ACLU of Colorado sent a letter to sheriffs in 52 counties warning they are constitutionally required to decrease the number of inmates in jail during the pandemic in order to comply with social distancing requirements. The incarcerated population is considered medically vulnerable. “It is to be expected that COVID-19 will turn incarceration into a death sentence for some Colorado prisoners,” said Rebecca Wallace, ACLU of Colorado senior staff attorney.

With the DOC stopping intakes, downward pressure will increase upon jails and law enforcement to keep the county jails from crowding. Polis earlier this week called on sheriffs to make fewer arrests.  

Given that more inmates will be released under this order, it also directs the Department of Public Safety to come up with money to pay for community corrections organizations to purchase hygiene products and food.

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  1. We need to start releasing our families that are elder. Low risk to the community and disabled out of prison. Come on people that is priority here you have a crap ton of parole violators in there for petty crap and people whom are not violent lesson the exposer. Start helping our families just because there in prison does not mean they deserve to die and be treated like animals. We are all quarantined to our houses so let us be with our families please. Have a heart.

  2. And I quote( She said using Centennial South to quarantine inmates “makes sense given that its physical design lends to much better isolation. This is vital and I support it. We must keep offenders and our correctional officers safe and as healthy as possible.”) This sounds like putting people to their Grave with the lack of medical attention and confined, especially if they have Covid-19 this is recipe for disaster.

  3. I would like to agree to Misty’s post I have my boyfriend of almost 3 years that self regressed himself so he could be on parole and start being a citizen in stead of a criminal and he is non violent and this is his only offensive ever, and by far has gotten a rotten deal to begin with just because of a judge who doesn’t like him. He just went into DRDC and hoping he can get out on parole a lot sooner then the have his estimated parole date. Please people do have a heart really there is nothing like forgiveness and love of a human life believe me Love conquers everything.

  4. my husband is in Sterling and it is very crowded there he’s almost 60 years old has breathing problems and he is nonviolent in there for a violation and a possession charge this sentence is almost up in 5 months why is he not being released I’m very worried the prison will not tell us anything and I have stage 4 cancer I need him home so if something happens to one of us we have a little time together the prison system needs to release non-violent offenders and the elderly please get someone to help us. Prison keeps them locked down all the time they have to even signe up just to use the phone they’re telling us lies that is what’s really going on up there. Sterling needs to release some of the inmates before they get sick and die we need to know what’s really going on. They’re worried about their staff members and not the inmates. If something happens to my husband I am suing.

  5. they are convited felons….there is a process for everything. They will not just release anyone. The felon should have had a heart befor they committed whatever crime they comitted. People shouldnt make this a political thing, The Doc will plan accordingly and make the necessary adjustments.

  6. Our judicial system makes me sick the fact the prisons are so full and we have a killing spreading virus and y’all don’t want to take any actions on releasing inmates?’ They can’t practice social distance they are not provided with face mask or hand santizer multiple people in the Heath field have pretty much begged to help with this problem and still refuse so sad most of these inmates that are eligible have already done to much time for their case why don’t we actually help inmates get them in programs instead of them sitting around doing nothing wasting our tax dollars if inmates are 180 days prior to their eligibility date and have a good parole plan why aren’t they getting released!!!

  7. Hi my name is Michael I am currently being held and community corrections facility in Denver Colorado I was currently tested for covid-19 my tests are not yet back and don’t know when they are going to be back I am under quarantine here at the halfway house I am being treated as if I have the plague I am being threatened by other inmates and staff members here treating me very poorly. I have a parole plan already approved I’m on level 2 ready to go to level three I have a job I am positive on my rent I have everything I need to succeed they’d rather keep me here at the halfway house possibly jeopardize other people’s health I just want people to know what’s really going on out there. I am a non-violent offender my mandatory release date as of now is 10/21/2020. I do not understand why I am being held here and jeopardizing everyone else’s health where I have a place to go that’s already been approved I just pray the Lord that I don’t have covid 19 and I pray that everyone . May God bless you and your families

  8. I would like to see about using the ankle- monitors. It has a drugs and alcohol monitoring system built in side it, they can only go where the porole officer says he can go if leaving his home, and who can see him at his home, by doing background check on the person, it would save money and time,on are prison and save are inmates that are in there,( on a none violent crime).

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