Weld County’s sheriff failed to heed public health orders to protect detainees, correctional staff and the public from the novel coronavirus, resulting in an outbreak inside the county jail, the ACLU of Colorado and civil rights attorneys allege in a federal lawsuit.
The complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Denver, seeks an emergency order to compel Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines for high-risk people held in the jail.
“We have written to Sheriff Reams; we have written to the Chief Judge in Weld County; and we have petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court,” ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a news release. “But the recipients of these pleas did not respond with the actions that were urgently required to prevent the calamity now unfolding in the Weld County Jail — an outbreak with multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19. We are now asking the federal court to order the desperately needed protective measures to save lives.”
Thirteen deputies and nine inmates inside the jail have tested positive for COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory illness causes by the new virus, Joe Moylan, spokesman for sheriff’s office, said. The entire facility is on lockdown, with all detainees testing positive being quarantined. The deputies are isolating at home, Moylan said.
The sheriff’s office could not comment on pending litigation, Moylan said. He noted the 556 people being held in the jail as of Tuesday was a decrease of 233 since March 1 — a 30% drop as jails across the state have significantly reduced their populations to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus.
Weld County itself has seen the fourth-highest number of infections in the state and the highest death rate of Colorado counties, the lawsuit states. At least 27 people have died in the county from complications of COVID-19; only Denver and El Paso counties have more deaths related to the virus.
The attorneys filing the petition — which includes the civil rights firm of Killmer, Lane and Newman — said they hoped the state Supreme Court would issue uniform, statewide rules about reducing the state’s jail populations to prevent the spread of coronavirus in jails. But on Friday, Colorado’s highest court denied the petition without explanation.
“This lawsuit is necessary in part because of a failure of state-wide judicial leadership,” attorney David Maxted said in the news release. “Without statewide leadership, others like Sheriff Reams will continue to ignore science and data, and thereby endanger the public as a whole. COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire through the Weld County Jail, and only action by this court can change the deadly course of events unfolding there.”
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