Denver jail inmate tests positive for COVID-19

Advocates say the spread within jails may be impossible to stop.

The Denver County jail on Feb. 19, 2020. City officials said an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 on March 30, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

An inmate in Denver’s downtown jail has tested positive for COVID-19, city officials said on Monday. 

The inmate has been isolated in the medical unit of the Downtown Detention Center and is being monitored by Denver Health medical staff, city officials said. 

The city’s Joint Information Center did not return a request from The Colorado Independent for additional details. 

The COVID-19 case could mark the first in Colorado’s jails, where advocates say an outbreak is almost impossible to control due to limits on social distancing. In many county jails, inmates share sinks, toilets and cells.

Meanwhile, the jail population is considered medically vulnerable, with many inmates without homes, health insurance and battling addiction. This makes inmates more susceptible to the disease, which attacks the lungs, medical professionals say. An inmate at a federal prison in Louisiana died of COVID-19 last Saturday. 

The announcement comes as people in Colorado continue to spread the new coronavirus. State health officials Monday reported 2,627 cases of COVID-19. At least 51 people have died of the disease and 414 people are hospitalized. Gov. Jared Polis said Monday the growth rate of the disease is slowing, in part due to the prohibition on the gathering of 10 or more people, school closures, and the closing of restaurants and bars to dine-in services. 

Public defenders and criminal justice advocates have been calling for inmates to be released from jail for weeks to control the spread of the virus and to prevent inmates who are presumed innocent but unable to pay bond from getting sick. The governor last week also called on sheriffs to reduce their jail populations by arresting fewer people. 

Denver has been issuing citations and summons rather than making arrests for low-level crimes in response to COVID-19. But until last week, the sheriff’s office had insisted defense lawyers meet with clients in the jail face-to-face despite objections from public defenders who warned such meetings posed a potential health hazard.  

A majority of inmates in Colorado’s jails are yet to be sentenced or tried, according to state data. Denver did not report required data to the state on the number of inmates in its jails who are waiting pretrial. The city’s two jails hold about 2,417 inmates, making it the largest county jail system in the state. 

Criminal justice advocates say a COVID-19 outbreak in jails raises questions about an inmate’s 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment guarantees to equal protection under the law. The ACLU has already sued ICE to release immigrants from detention centers.