ACLU files lawsuit against El Paso County Sheriff for denying inmates COVID-19 protections


DENVER – On Sunday, ACLU of Colorado and three private attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder in federal court.

The lawsuit is based on hundreds of letters and dozens of interviews, seeking an expedited hearing and a court order to require the Sheriff to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines, provide adequate protection from the virus, and implement proper monitoring and treatment for persons who test positive.

FOX21 News asked the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) for comment and was simply told the department does not comment on pending litigation. A spokeperson pointed instead to the COVID-19 Information page on the EPSO website.

Since the pandemic began, 165 staff members at the El Paso County Jail have had lab-confirmed cases and 1,073 inmates have had lab-confirmed cases. Current numbers, as of December 11, ahow eight staff members and 14 inmates have lab-confirmed cases. According to the lawsuit, jail staff told incarcerated people begging for help: “we’re just going to let the virus run its course.”

“While publicly on Facebook Sheriff Elder was imploring citizens to ‘wear a mask,’ privately he and his staff prohibited people from wearing masks in their housing units,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “The result of the sheriff’s multiple failures was the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any jail or prison in the state, with two-thirds of the jail population testing positive. Only then, a few weeks ago, did the sheriff finally begin providing incarcerated people with masks.”

The class action complaint, filed by six detained people on behalf of the entire jail population, claims Sheriff Elder failed in multiple ways to protect people in his custody from the highly contagious virus.

One woman, who is three months pregnant and being held for a non-violent offense wrote, “I was sleeping within a few feet of COVID positive inmates. Even though I had tested negative and even though I am high risk because I am pregnant and have asthma, the jail still did nothing to move me away from the people who tested positive.”

<<< Inmates speak out about conditions in El Paso County Jail during COVID-19 outbreak

According to the lawsuit, Sheriff Elder failed to provide masks despite receiving $15.6 million in federal funding under the CARES Act for the purpose of COVID-19 protection. According to the El Paso County Website, these upgrades listed below are intended to reduce the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19 and increase the overall safety and security of the jail.  

The following projects are in the planning phase and each are lead by a project coordinator:
1.  Replace Property Conveyor in the El Paso County Jail  =$600,000.00
2.  Jail Security Cameras and Door Control  =$4,686,440.00
3.  Jail Facility Door Lock Replacement   =$1,850,000.00
4.  Jail Lobby / Lockers    =$2,200,000.00
5.  Sheriff’s Training Facility / Remodel   =$950,000.00
6.  Upgrade Equipment for Sanitation / Hygiene   =$300,000.00
7.  Tele-Medicine Equipment   =$250,000.00
8.  Visitation Booth Remodel for Privacy and Security of Professional Visits   =$250,000.00
9.  Hazardous Duty Pay   =$1,161,000.00
10.  Office Cubicle Update & Safety Improvements    =$500,000.00
11.  Overtime to Establish Services Back to Expected Level   =$200,000.00
12.  Re-Deployment of School Resource Officers   =$125,000.00
13.  Re-Deployment of Work Release Deputies  =$487,500.00
14.  Video Court   =$26,000.00

Total of = $13,585,940.00

ACLU said in addition to failing for months to provide masks, the jail mixed people who are COVID-19 positive with others, failed to quarantine new admissions, failed to identify and protect incarcerated people whom the CDC deems to be especially medically vulnerable if they contract the virus, and failed to properly monitor and treat those who developed symptoms.

“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 legal team. “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 plaintiffs’ attorneys, in this case, include Dan Williams of Hutchinson, Black and Cook, LLC, David Maxted of Maxted Law, Jamie Hubbard of Stimson Stancil LaBranche Hubbard and the ACLU of Colorado legal team.

Attorneys in this case also represent incarcerated people in the Weld County Jail in a class action raising similar issues against Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams. After a day-long hearing last April, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Weld sheriff to implement protective measures, including providing masks to people in custody.

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