Federal judge orders Weld County sheriff to protect health of jail inmates during pandemic

Sheriff Steve Reams has violated the constitutional rights of inmates against cruel and unusual punishment, order says

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)

A federal judge Monday ruled the treatment of inmates in the Weld County jail during the COVID-19 pandemic violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  

As a result, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer ordered the county’s sheriff, Steve Reams, to identify inmates who have underlying health conditions and implement enhanced social distancing measures designed to protect them from the highly contagious disease. 

The order comes after the ACLU of Colorado and civil rights attorneys in April filed a class-action lawsuit in the federal district court on behalf of five inmates who have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that has infected at least eight inmates and four staff at the jail. On April 1, 78-year-old Charlie Peterson died of COVID-19 two days after he was released from the Weld County jail. 

The judge found that Sheriff Reams acted in “purposeful disregard of the elevated risk of harm that COVID-19” poses to inmates, at times placing up to five inmates in a single cell. The sheriff “does not have any policy or procedure designed to minimize the risk to medically vulnerable inmates from contracting COVID-19,”  the judge said, calling the absence of such policies a violation of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Quoting the 1987 Turner v. Safley case, the judge said, “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the  protections of the Constitution.”

In addition to enhanced social distancing for medically vulnerable inmates, the judge ordered the sheriff to create a new intake procedure for medically vulnerable inmates to be single-celled or socially distanced and to implement “enhanced sanitation” practices and distribute more face masks. The sheriff has until May 21 to enact the policies. 

A spokesman for the Weld County sheriff’s office said he does not have a comment at this time. 

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for ACLU of Colorado, said attorneys may consider requesting that the medically vulnerable plaintiffs be released if the new policies don’t do enough to protect the inmates. 

The ruling comes as the number of cases in jails and the state’s prison continues to mount. The downtown Denver jail has 84 inmates with lab-confirmed COVID-19. Meanwhile, 329 inmates have tested positive in the Sterling state prison and another 37 inmates at the CoreCivic-run Crowley prison. In all, at least two jail and two prison inmates are presumed by the state to have died of COVID-19 in Colorado. 

Said Silverstein, “This ruling should be required reading for not only all sheriffs in the state, but also the director of the Department of Corrections.”

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