As COVID-19 spreads in Colorado prison, the phone lines go silent

The lockdown measures at the Sterling prison aim to save lives during the disease outbreak, said Dean Williams, the head of the Department of Corrections

The entrance to Centennial South Correctional Facility, formerly known as CSP II, on July 19, 2019. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a separate prison in Sterling is on lockdown. (Photo by John Herrick)

Update: This story was published on April 24 at 9:30 a.m. On Friday afternoon, DOC said it tested 473 inmates at Sterling on Wednesday for COVID-19. As of Friday afternoon, 255 results have been returned: 138 inmates tested positive and 104 tested negative. The prison has been on lockdown since April 14, meaning inmates are confined to their cells except to use the restroom or shower.

Sandy Winston’s husband, Gary, is currently locked up in the Sterling prison on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. On Thursday, she found out eight inmates at the prison have tested positive for COVID-19. What she can’t find out is if her 58-year-old husband is one of them. 

“Nobody knows anything,” Winston told The Colorado Independent. 

As Colorado begins to reopen with Gov. Jared Polis expected to lift his stay-at-home order Monday, the Sterling prison has gone into lockdown, which includes cutting off phone calls from inmates. 

According to Department of Corrections officials, inmates will remain in their cells during the unspecified duration of the quarantine period. All meals and medications are being delivered to inmates in the cells. DOC gave staff and inmates masks to wear. And since April 14, DOC has suspended phone calls and video visits from inmates in Sterling to families and friends, saying the move is necessary in order to prevent cross-contamination of COVID-19, the disease that has killed more than 500 people in Colorado

While inmates can still write letters and receive postcards, Winston said she needs more reassurance. She said she can’t sleep, that she’s worried sick. “At least hearing his voice I know he’s alright and I know he’s safe. I’m waiting for a letter. What if I don’t get a letter?” 

Dean Williams, the director for the Department of Corrections, said families of inmates will be among the first to know if they test positive for COVID-19. 

DOC has been trying to increase free calls, video visits and postcards during the pandemic after suspending in-person prison visits. But Williams said the risk of contamination from inmates sharing the same phone, even if they are wiped down, is too high. 

“The virus is pernicious because of its ability to hide right now,” Williams said. “It’s a very tough time and I’m extremely sympathetic to the family members who are worried. [But] the greater goal for me is to protect lives until I know the spread of the virus.”

He said he thinks about what’s happening in Ohio, where most inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and Michigan, where 21 inmates and two staff have died of the disease. DOC tested up to 500 inmates in Sterling this week, he said, and, based on those tests, may decide to lift the call restriction in certain units.

“I’m willing to change at any particular moment,” Williams said. “There’s nothing good from shutting down communication between the inmate population and their loved ones … except in this scenario when you have a pandemic.”  

On March 11, DOC suspended all in-person visits to prison facilities. And, on March 25, one day before an inmate at the prison in Buena Vista tested positive for COVID-19, DOC halted new intakes of inmates from county jails except in limited circumstances. Since then, at least nine inmates at two of Colorado’s 24 prisons, which hold about 19,000 inmates, has tested positive. At least eight DOC employees have tested positive. 

The high-security Sterling prison is the state’s largest, with the capacity for 2,488 inmates. At the end of March, all but 32 beds in the facility were filled, according to DOC reports. Williams said the prison is still practically full even as inmates there are being paroled. Last week, the state’s prisons are about 94% full, he said. 

Social distancing in the state’s prisons is “difficult if not impossible,” Williams said, which is why the state has already paroled about 50 inmates. He said he’s been conservative with releases and doesn’t want to release anyone who has no place to live, but is willing to reconsider that policy. 

Sandy Winston said she doesn’t know why her husband, Gary, is still locked up. He’s been in Sterling since February. She said he was eligible for parole in July, sentenced for non-violent drug charges and has an upper respiratory issue. She called Sterling eight times one day, she said, speaking to a receptionist once who she said wasn’t able to give her any answers. 

“I’ve called everywhere. I’ve even called the DOC helpline and left my name and my number and I haven’t heard back from them,” she said. “All the phone numbers, none of them are real to me right now.” 

Williams said he can’t speak to Winston’s case but he said it sounds as though he would be eligible for release. DOC has published a list of criteria for parole eligibility. This list includes those who committed “victimless” crimes. 

In the meantime, Winston is waiting for another letter. She said her husband would call her almost every other day around 6:30 p.m. They last spoke about his release on parole, his kids and plans to lay a gravestone for his mother, she said. She said he writes about the time they spent together, that he should have cherished it more, and their children. It sounds to her like he’s shutting down. 

“He keeps saying, ‘please, call up there and see what you can find out.’ I don’t have an answer to write him back,” she said. “We just want him home. Where he’s safe.”

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