Reformers want Polis to commute the sentences of more inmates during pandemic

Criminal justice groups sent a letter to Polis Friday saying the prison population needs to drop so that each inmate has his or her own cell.

A cell in the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City on July 19, 2019. Inmates are physically unable to stay far enough from their fellow prisoners to adequately socially distance as the CDC has required.
A cell in the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City on July 19, 2019. Inmates are physically unable to stay far enough from their fellow prisoners to adequately socially distance as the CDC has required. (Photo by John Herrick)

Criminal justice reformers are calling on Gov. Jared Polis to commute the sentences of more inmates in Colorado’s prisons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The prison population has reached historic lows in the last month, down to about 18,419 inmates in Colorado’s 22 state-owned and two private prisons. But advocates say this is not enough to protect inmates vulnerable to COVID-19. They want each inmate to be able to have his or her own cell.

Colorado just abolished the death penalty. We cannot keep elderly and medically vulnerable Coloradans incarcerated in prisons that are likely to become their death traps,” said a letter sent to Polis on Friday. The letter was signed by 17 organizations, including the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Black Lives Matters 5280 and ACLU of Colorado.

Governors in Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Washington and other states have commuted the sentences of hundreds of prisoners in the last two months. But Polis has not ramped up commutations during the pandemic, which has claimed 944 lives in Colorado since mid-March. His 10-member clemency advisory board continues to meet once every other month. 

Hassan Latif, a formerly incarcerated man who runs Aurora’s Second Chance Center, a re-entry program for former inmates, is a member of the clemency advisory board. He signed onto the letter to Polis calling for more commutations. 

“We will make ourselves available to meet more frequently for this purpose,” Latif said. “We’re all pretty anxious about the movement of folks out of there.” 

An 86-year-old inmate died on May 1 after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, DOC has said. At least 262 inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. One inmate at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex and two at the CoreCivic-run Crowley County Correctional Facility, which is on lockdown, have tested positive. The Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center is also on lockdown, according to DOC. 

Polis in March issued an order allowing DOC to halt new intakes from jails and grant early parole to more inmates. Advocates say about 200 inmates have been released through this process, a number DOC has not provided to The Colorado Independent despite repeated requests. 

The letter from advocates also calls for parole reforms, including suspending a requirement that people have an approved parole plan prior to review by the parole board — meaning some people could be released homeless — and to allow people who require victim notifications to be eligible for early release.

Denise Maes, public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado, which also signed onto the May 8 letter, said people with convictions of violent crimes also have to be considered for release, in order to get the prison population low enough. The letter cites the example of a man in the Sterling Correctional Facility who was sentenced to 30 years for a series of robberies and is now 86 years old. 

“He’s aged out of crime. At 86, he’s not going to be stealing a lot of cars,” she said. 

When asked about the letter, Polis said during a news conference on Friday that every prisoner has been given a mask and has access to medical care if they contract COVID-19. 

He added, “If anybody is looking to COVID-19 as an excuse to let dangerous criminals out, then they have the wrong governor.” 

Another reason to release inmates, according to the letter, is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color, who are overrepresented in the state’s prison system. Black people make up 4.6% of the state population but 17.5% of the prison population, Latinos make up 21.7% of the state population but 32% of the prison population and Native Americans make up 1.6% percent of the state population but 3.5% of the prison population. 

“In prison, as in the broader community, people of color will suffer the most from COVID-19,” the letter states. “Because of historic and systemic racism in our criminal legal system and historic disinvestment in communities of color, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are dramatically overrepresented in prisons. Thus, infections, serious illness, and deaths among incarcerated people will inevitably fall most heavily upon incarcerated people of color, who are also disproportionately represented among vulnerable populations with diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disease, and other conditions with COVID-19 comorbidity.”