Governor Polis has the unfettered ability to temporarily reprieve prisoners from serving their sentences. He must use this power and take immediate action to depopulate Colorado’s prisons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This unprecedented crisis presents a unique danger to the human beings confined in prison. Correctional facilities across the country have the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in the world. The former head of the Colorado Department of Corrections has described prisons as “bacteria factories.” Communicable diseases could not ask for a better breeding ground than a crowded prison. And Colorado’s prisons are crowded.
Even as the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic have crystalized, hundreds of prisoners continue to be required to sit, elbow-to-elbow, eating in cafeterias. Prisoners still sleep in large dormitories less than a few feet from each other. Nearly every prisoner has a neighbor who sleeps mere feet, if not inches, away. The prisoners share sinks, showers, and toilets. Much of the space is so cramped that prisoners are physically unable to stay far enough from their fellow prisoners to be safe from the risk of contagion. Simply put, there is no way for prisons, at their current population levels, to allow for the human beings in their care to adequately socially distance as the CDC has required.
Just yesterday, the first case of COVID-19 was officially reported in a Colorado prison. Colorado officials publicly stated that this individual has been “quarantined.” But, in prisons, that means he is housed in a cell with another currently healthy person. There is simply no way to effectively quarantine those who are COVID-19 positive in Colorado’s prisons. And, given the complete lack of testing, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of other prisoners who are currently sick with COVID-19 that are still in the general population spreading the disease. The response to this crisis in Colorado’s prisons has been unconstitutional and, frankly, unconscionable.
Those serving sentences in our prisons are more than mere statistics. They are human beings. They are our neighbors. They are fathers, sons, mothers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents. There is hardly a person in this state who does not know someone who is incarcerated. It is at this time that we should show compassion and humanity to those in our prisons by releasing them. While those being held in our prisons may have received a sentence for the crimes they have committed, that sentence was not a death sentence. The punishment that is currently being imposed does not fit the crime.
Colorado is already behind the curve. The steps that have been taken so far in Colorado to protect prisoners are akin to tossing a bucket of water on a four-alarm house fire or placing a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Other states from coast to coast (with a far lower infection rate than Colorado) have taken important steps to save the human beings in their custody, including Montana, New Jersey, Utah, Ohio, California, Iowa, Kentucky, and even the Trump Administration. Colorado officials must join the growing consensus of states releasing inmates to stop the spread of COVID-19. Governor Polis has a moral imperative to take bolder action.
The release of prisoners is essential not only for the health of the prisoners themselves, but also for those who work in close contact with the incarcerated. This includes everyone from prison guards to correctional nurses. The spread among this community has already started. As things currently stand, a COVID-19 outbreak is all but inevitable in prison communities throughout the state, from Canon City to Sterling. And, these communities lack the appropriate resources to respond to the crisis. The hospitals that are in close proximity to these communities do not have adequate ventilators for the inevitable onslaught of COVID-19 patients should our state’s prisons continue to incarcerate every person, regardless of whether they committed a non-violent crime, are eligible for parole, are elderly, or are vulnerable to COVID-19. Without depopulation sufficient to allow for social distancing, many people will die.
This moment demands immediate and decisive action. Humanity demands a compassionate response. And, public safety requires that the spread of COVID-19 be stopped using any means necessary. Governor Polis, do the right thing.
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