Inmates sue El Paso County jail for failing to provide masks, alleging lack of COVID-19 precautions

Inmates at the El Paso County jail filed a class action lawsuit against the sheriff in charge of the facility, alleging jail staff put their lives at risk by not providing masks and failed to properly protect people from COVID-19.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Colorado and three private attorneys on Monday, follows a coronavirus outbreak at the 1,200-person facility that infected more than 900 inmates — one of the largest outbreaks in the state.

The jail did not provide masks to the general inmate population until early November after the outbreak already began, as first reported by The Denver Post. Before then, inmates tried to make masks from underwear and bedsheets, but some were punished for doing so, according to the lawsuit.

“Hundreds of people contracted COVID-19 in the jail and suffered unnecessarily because of the sheriff’s deliberately indifferent failure to protect them from an obvious risk of infection and harm to their health,” said Dan Williams, an attorney on the case. “Meanwhile, those who have yet to contract the virus live in constant fear, as they look around at sick bunkmates, coughing jail staff and a general disregard for safety. In the time it took to prepare to file this case, people who tested negative multiple times have now tested positive and begun to get sick. Urgent is an understatement.”

The vast majority of the jail’s population at the time of the outbreak was being held because those inmates couldn’t afford to post bond and hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office also failed to separate sick inmates from those who tested negative and failed to provide adequate care for inmates who contracted the virus, leaving sick inmates to wait it out in their cells with little medical treatment to alleviate symptoms, according to the lawsuit. Jail staff told inmates that they planned “to let the virus run its course,” the lawsuit states.

The legal team is asking a judge to order the sheriff’s office to take better care of inmates. The lawyers succeeded in convincing a judge to order change in a previous case when they sued the Weld County sheriff for lack of COVID-19 precautions. They asked the judge to require the distribution of two masks per inmate, require the use of the masks in the jail and medical screening for every inmate who tests positive, among other changes.

“While myriad deficiencies caused the outbreak and continue to expose Plaintiffs and class members as alleged herein, the jail’s lack of a mask policy illustrates most vividly Defendant’s deliberate indifference,” the lawsuit states.

Jail staff had the money to purchase masks, the lawsuit alleges, because the agency received more than $15 million in federal money for coronavirus-related purchases and projects. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spent that money on facility upgrades and other projects, including expanding the staff’s locker rooms.

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