Colorado Jail Blows Through $16 Million in COVID Relief Money, Has Outbreak Anyway, Settles ACLU Conditions Suit
by David M. Reutter
Colorado’s El Paso County Jail, the state’s largest jail, received almost $16 million in federal funds to cover costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It used most of those funds in jail renovations that were part of a longstanding wish list. Meanwhile, staff and detainees were not provided face masks, which led to an outbreak of COVID-19. The Colorado ACLU filed suit to force the jail to comply with basic COVID prevention protocols such as actually giving prisoners masks to wear.
Jail officials sought out money under the federal CARES Act after Deputy Jeff Hopkins, a 19-year veteran, died on April 1, 2001. He contracted COVID-19 while working at the jail’s intake and release.
“Losing that sheriff’s deputy so early on… was incredibly impacting as we were thinking about making decisions down the road,” said former El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller.
“The CARES Act provides that payments from the Fund may only be used to cover costs that are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019,” guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department states. The guidance also states the money should only be used for costs that “were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020, and ends on December 31, 2021.”
The El Paso County Jail used a large portion of its CARES Act funds to refurbish a locker room for deputies, and to build a new training facility. It also spent $600,000 on a conveyor belt to move detainee property from one place to another. The most expensive item, at a cost of almost $9 million, was the installation of high-tech locks, security cameras, and new doors throughout the jail.
The justification was that the new doors would help keep infected detainees from infected ones. The new cameras allowed better angles in locked down cells. The new deputy locker room was touted as a way to prevent cross-contamination by providing each deputy with a locker, ending the practice of shared lockers. Finally, the conveyor belt system organizes detainee property in plastic bags so the deputies didn’t have to touch it.
“Had COVID not happened, we wouldn’t have done these things because we wouldn’t have had to,” said jail spokeswoman Jacqueline Reed. “This was an aggressive undertaking because all of the money had to be spent before the end of 2020” (The period was later extended into 2021.)
The County Commission was persuaded to use the funds for those projects. “Certainly, I thought it would make it, not only our staff members safer, I thought it would make people who were incarcerated safer,” said Waller. “I’m not a lock expert and I have to rely on the sheriff’s deputies. I feel like they convinced me that it would make people safer and it was the right thing to do.”
While money was approved for the wish-list items, detainees and staff were without masks to wear. Jail officials said there was a shortage of PPE and it considered masks with metal in them contraband.
“Everyone was in there coughing on each other. I’m laying on my bunk and I’m literally at arm’s length to touch the next person,” said Cecil Haynes, who spent three months at the jail at the end of 2020. “I sent hundreds of messages… I had to get a T-shirt and cut off the sleeve and wear that as a face mask so I could protect myself. But that didn’t work, by the time I decided to do that, I’d already contracted it.”
The reality inside the jail was in direct contradiction to a summer 2020 Facebook post from El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder. “I just encourage people, wear a mask,” he said. “Let’s try to make this as easy as we can on the community and not try to make it more difficult on individuals.”
Just months after that post, the jail experienced its worst wave of COVID-19. In a single week of November 2020, 859 detainees and 73 staff members tested positive at the jail. As of the first week of April 2021, 1,272 positive cases were reported at the jail.
According to court filings, one deputy told detainees he was going to let the virus “run its course” through the jail population because there were so many infected detainees.
In July 2020, jail officials furnished masks to prisoners to wear back and forth to court, but they were forced to discard them upon return to the jail. According to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, detainees were punished for fashioning their own masks.
Haynes described an insurrection at the jail in the second week of November 2020. He said detainees refused to eat, lock down, or follow directions. “They’re sitting there, lying to the general public, our family members, everyone,” he said. “And finally, they sent a bunch of deputies, the sergeants, and they said, ‘well, what would it take to get you to stop this?’ And we asked for masks and the very next day they brought us masks.”
Reed disputed that account. “There was nothing even close to an insurrection,” she said. “There were a few inmates who were upset they were not issued masks, so they decided to go to the media and at least one did an interview. Every inmate is given a cloth mask and approximately 10 percent of inmates wear them on a daily basis.”
As part of a preliminary injunction on January 4, 2021, the sheriff agreed to require all staff to wear masks, issue two cloth masks to people incarcerated at the jail, check temperatures, screen for at-risk individuals, provide clean drinking water, continue COVID testing protocols, isolate those who tested positive, and provide appropriate medical care for those with COVID. The injunction expired after 180 days.
A settlement was reached in May 2021 for $95,000 to cover attorney fees of the plaintiffs. El Paso County is to pay $65,000, and the medical provider Wellpath is to pay $30,000.
“To the jail’s credit, they responded promptly to the lawsuit and quickly agreed,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. “And now it looks like they’ve been doing pretty well on the outbreak front.” See: Weikert v. Elder, USDC, DCO, Case No. 1:20-cv-03646-RBJ.