A group of medically vulnerable prisoners on Thursday sued the Colorado Penitentiary Department and the governor who accused the state of not doing enough to protect them from the new coronavirus.
The detainees – whose diagnosis included lung disease and paralysis – requested that judges of the Denver District Court ask the Penitentiary Department to identify detainees who were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or medical conditions and then find out if there were safe ways to release them. If they cannot be released safely, the complaint asks that they be placed safely. The complaint also asked the judge to order the department to allow an expert to enter the prison and evaluate the status of COVID-19 preventive measures.
“Without the intervention of this Court there will be many serious illnesses and more preventable deaths,” the complaint said.
The detainees were represented by ACLU from Colorado and a number of civil rights lawyers. The archives also make a wider accusation that cleaning up in state prisons is not enough given COVID-19 and that system remains crowded, Although there are some efforts to reduce that population.
“The department has kept so many people in its facilities that it is impossible to keep a distance of six feet between them,” the complaint said. “Most detainees, including those in the plaintiff’s class, are placed in small cells with one or more cellmates and there is no possibility of social distance. In all CDOC facilities, prisoners sleep, eat, and use the bathroom less than six feet from their cellmates. “
The lawsuit was addressed to Governor Jared Polis for allowing parts of the executive order to end which allowed the release of several detainees. It also alleged that the policy had failed to grant clemency to medically vulnerable inmates who had delayed applications.
The police filed a lawsuit on Thursday afternoon during the question and answer section at the press conference. He said the country would strongly defend against lawsuits and that he had confidence in the Penitentiary Department’s ability to protect prisoners and staff from viruses. He did not give a specific reason allow the executive order to end when asked, but said that the pandemic was not a reason to release prisoners who might be a threat to public safety. He said he would not use clemency or the power of forgiveness to reduce the prison population because of COVID-19, like other governors.
“It is important for the people of Colorado to know that of course we will strongly defend ourselves against any lawsuits that seek to turn this pandemic into an attempt to free dangerous criminals,” Polis said.
Two plaintiffs are housed in the Sterling Correctional Facility – the largest COVID-19 outbreak site in the state. On Wednesday, 593 state prisoners have tested positive for the virus and two Sterling prisoners have died, according to the Department of Corrections data.
The plaintiff includes:
- Gary Winston, 58, who suffers from lung disease who often need oxygen and who is serving a one-year sentence at the Sterling Correctional Facility for drug possession.
- John Peckham, 54, who has lung disease, chronic bronchitis and diabetes. He demands breathing treatment several times a day, according to the lawsuit. He served time for several counts of theft.
- Matthew Aldaz, 32, who used a wheelchair because he was paralyzed from the chest down, which affected his ability to cough and breathe. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison for second-degree murder, according to court records.
- William Stevenson, 58, who has hypertension and a history of tuberculosis. He is serving time for a severe robbery sentence, according to court records.
- Dean Carbajal, 39, who has asthma and is jailed at the Sterling facility. He was convicted of assault, violation of protection orders, violating the terms of ties, theft and violation, court records show.
The men said they could not distance themselves from prisoners and other staff, some of whom did not take the virus seriously, the complaint said. Cleaning was inadequate and prisoners assigned to clean were not given the right supplies, according to the archives.
“In Mr. Stevenson, two bottles of cleaning supplies were released in the morning, and that was ‘running crazy’ for supplies, “the complaint said. “As soon as they leave, that’s all, there’s no more until the next day.”
The ACLU of Colorado is leading a similar lawsuit against the Weld County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of medically vulnerable inmates in the county jail. A federal judge ruled May 11 to support prisoners and ordered the sheriff to identify vulnerable prisoners and take special steps to protect them.
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