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.