Civil rights attorneys sue Weld County sheriff over COVID-19 response

The lawsuit alleges a violation of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment

Handcuffs at the Alamosa County jail. The Weld County sheriff violated constitutional rights of inmates during the pandemic, federal judge ruled on May 11, 2020. (Photo by Evan Semón)

The ACLU of Colorado and state civil rights attorneys filed a lawsuit in the federal district court on Tuesday alleging Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams has failed to follow social distancing guidelines in his jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Failing to follow the guidelines, which generally call for maintaining six feet of physical distance to slow the spread of the coronavirus, violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and punishment prior to conviction, the attorneys say. 

The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of five inmates who are being detained pretrial and have underlying health conditions, including asthma, Hepatitis C, diabetes, vitiligo, high blood pressure, and a history of smoking and substance use disorder. These underlying health conditions make these inmates particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that has killed 179 people in Colorado since the first case was identified on March 5.

A spokesperson for the Weld County Sheriff’s office said it cannot comment on pending litigation. 

So far, an inmate and four employees at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit said the jail has been in lockdown, allowing inmates one hour of time out of their cell per day. 

ACLU of Colorado has been collecting data on the state’s jail populations, which have generally been reduced by about a third in recent weeks. The lawsuit says the Weld County Jail stands out as having the lowest depopulation rate since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and the highest jail occupancy rate. Driving down the jail population is the only way to increase social distancing, experts say. 

Weld County has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections. The county has the third-highest number of deaths in the state, making it one of the state’s hotspots, according to state data

Judges generally decide who is released from jail at the request of prosecutors and defense lawyers. While sheriffs do not have full control of their jail population, the lawsuit alleges Reams has discouraged local district attorneys and judges from making efforts to decrease the Weld County jail population, assuring them he was ready to manage COVID-19 in the jail. 

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis issued guidance to sheriffs, judges, prosecutors and public defenders on reducing the jail population, including calling on sheriffs to issue summons and citations in lieu of arrests. The Department of Corrections has also issued a moratorium on new intakes from county jails, putting more pressure on sheriffs to manage their inmate populations. 

Reams had been critical of the COVID-19 response in Colorado even before the Polis issued a stay-at-home order, saying on Facebook on March 20: “I understand that nobody wants to catch Coronavirus but statistically, even if you catch it you’re likely to be just fine. What I’m concerned with is our Country catching a huge case of socialism.”

The lawsuit says many inmates are housed at least three to four to a cell, with some cells housing as many as nine inmates. Until just days ago, the lawsuit says, inmates ate and recreated shoulder-to-shoulder, with no efforts at physical distancing, even as several inmates showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Currently, people are still held in pods of 40 or more, the lawsuit said. Some non-symptomatic inmates were locked in cells with sick inmates, the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit alleges that one inmate had an asthma attack and was coughing during his booking, after which medical personnel at the jail advised him he probably just had a cold and took no further steps to isolate him from the general jail population or to determine if he might have the COVID-19 virus.

The lawsuit calls on the sheriff’s office to create six feet of physical distance between people at the jail, disinfect and sanitize surfaces daily, provide more hygiene supplies free of charge to inmates, make sure people coming into contact with food do not have any symptoms, and implement new policies and protocols for identifying people who may have COVID-19.  

The lawsuit is also asking the judge to declare that the sheriff violated the Eighth Amendment by failing to comply with public health guidelines to prevent or manage an outbreak of COVID-19.

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