WELD COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams has been ordered to further protect jail inmates considered higher-risk of contracting COVID-19. After some inmates teamed up with the ACLU, a judge issued a 39-page injunction demanding the jail improve living standards for some during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're talking about people here. It doesn't matter what we have done," said Tom Lewis, a former inmate in Weld County.
Lewis told CBS4's Dillon Thomas he was one of the first inmates to raise concerns about what he described a poor conditions for those more susceptible to the virus. Lewis is one of the former inmates listed in the suit against Reams by the ACLU.
"I'm at extremely high risk being at 60-years-old," Lewis said via video conference. "We're incarcerated in cells, at the beginning of the virus, where six men were to a cell. By the time I had left we were at three men, which still doesn't allow any social distancing."
Sheriff Reams respectfully declined to interview on the topic. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office provided the following statement to CBS4:
"Weld County Sheriff's Office staff are compiling data about medically vulnerable inmates at the Weld County Jail in accordance with the court's order. Once that process is complete, the sheriff will decide about future jail operations that take into consideration risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic while also assuring the safety of Weld County residents."
As of Tuesday, 12 inmates at the jail had tested positive for the virus, two of which came to the jail already infected. The sheriff's office also confirmed 18 deputies fell ill; however, it wasn't clear if those deputies contracted the virus at work.
Lewis said many inmates realized the issues didn't only impact them.
"Wow, this must be tough for (workers) too," Lewis said. "Tensions, to say the least, rose by the hour."
Lewis credited Sheriff Reams for securing masks after the virus first arrived in the jail. Though he said, at first, only staff were wearing them, eventually inmates were issued masks as well. Lewis claimed the inmates were asked to wear their masks in common areas, but were not required to in cells.
"A lot of (inmates) weren't wearing them," Lewis said.
In his ruling, Judge Philip Brimmer stated, "The record indicates that the defendant has failed to take adequate measures to protect members of the plaintiff class from COVID-19 given that they face a heightened risk of serious illness or death from the virus. Accordingly, plaintiffs' conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and plaintiffs are entitled to a limited preliminary injunction to ameliorate those conditions."
Judge Brimmer ordered the Weld County Jail to comply with the following:
- Identify incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable
- Socially distance high-risk inmates and provide them with single cells to the greatest extent possible
- Monitor medically vulnerable inmates for signs of illness
- Adequately clean communal spaces used by medically vulnerable inmates
- Ensure that medically vulnerable inmates have access to face masks
A spokesperson says currently, of 463 inmates, only four have the virus and 22 have been tested.
A Weld County inmate died of COVID-19 on April 1, two days after his release from the jail. A sheriff's department spokesperson said the jail was notified that the man was COVID-19 positive on April 2, and said they received no reports of him exhibiting symptoms while in jail.
In order to prevent the spread of the virus, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office said in April that inmates were only being let out of their cell in groups of 4 to 8, for one hour a day.
"Weld County's foot-dragging through March led to its jail being the first one in Colorado to have an outbreak," said Dan. Williams, of Hutchinson, Black and Cook, who led the ACLU's portion of the litigation team. "Weld County's lawyer argued that the judge should excuse the Sheriff's failure to take COVID-19 more seriously because there had 'only been one death.' Today's order makes clear that when it comes to COVID-19, half measures don't cut it. Jails need to take aggressive measures to keep medically vulnerable people safe."
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