Sheriff’s Office responds to COVID-19 at county jail preventing inmates from attending court

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UPDATE (July 21): The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has responded to questions FOX21 posed regarding inmates being denied going to their court dates if in quarantine or after testing positive for COVID-19.

According to the sheriff’s office, the courts fully opened on July 6, 2021, when legal proceedings went from predominantly virtual to predominantly in-person court appearances (with the exception of advisements). 

The office said because of that switch, logistical challenges were created due to the increase of quarantine wards in the jail.  

As of July 21, the office reported nine inmates in the jail with COVID, but said the facility must follow the direction from Public Health and quarantine those wards where inmates have tested positive. 

In a statement the department said, “Many times logistics and resources prevent us from being able to provide virtual and in person court appearances at the same time, of which the courts are fully aware of.  It is a little more than ‘rolling a TV in here’, as one inmate stated in your story. There are security measures which still have to be followed even when doing virtual court.”

The sheriff’s office went on to say, “Although it is frustrating for some of the inmates to have missed their court dates, we have to balance our resources, public health and safety, and the wishes of the judges in accomplishing our mission, and do not anticipate this will be an issue for much longer.”

According to the sheriff’s office, officials have been arranging special circumstance virtual visits on a case-by-case basis.

ORIGINAL (July 20): EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — More inmates and detention officers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the El Paso County Jail.

This comes after the large outbreak last fall where more than 1,000 inmates and 100 staff members had lab-confirmed cases.

Recently, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) confirmed nine cases among inmates and five among staff members.

Inmates told FOX21 News that they are being forced to miss court dates even if their tests come back negative. Some say they have missed their sentencing or bond hearing, which would help them get out of jail.

“There are people that are awaiting trial, awaiting bond hearings that literally could be posting bond getting out here today but they can’t get to court to do that,” Sean McCray said. “The courts has the systems in place that they could roll a tv screen in here and do it in the same matter that I’m talking to you right now and the court could be done with nobody at risk.”

It wasn’t until an inmate’s family alerted FOX21 News about the outbreak that the sheriff’s office updated the data on its website. EPSO said that in the spirit of transparency, it provided those updates online but switched to internal tracking after January 26, 2021, due to the low numbers of positive cases.

“I do know that at least 16 individuals have tested positive out of this pod alone,” McCray added. “I’ve taken 16 tests and I’ve been negative in everyone.”

Despite the negative tests, McCray, along with many other inmates, say they’ve missed court proceedings.

Inmates at the El Paso County Jail: Sean McCray, Seth Thirsk, Justin Busick

“It was a phone conference and they wouldn’t let me have access to a phone,” Seth Thirsk said.

“I was the first person to deny court and that was on the 7th and nobody has gone to court until today and the individual was taken to the courthouse but never left the transport van,” McCray explained.

McCray, who has already pleaded guilty, said because he missed court, he will spend three extra weeks in jail instead of being sentenced to ComCor, a program to help rehabilitate, house, and offer jobs to convicted criminals.

“Basically, at this point, it’s just me going to ComCor and me serving out my time and soon as that is complete then I’ll be on my way but I can’t get started to do that when I’m stuck here,” McCray said.

Another inmate said he missed his bond hearing.

“I can’t be out there working and providing for them cause I’m guilty until proven innocent, so you know, it’s kind of screwed up and we can’t able to provide that we’re stuck in here,” Justin Busick said. “I’ve done time in prison, I killed my parole, did good, started my own company, and was doing good for my family.”

The jail tests inmates once a week unless they have tested positive. Then, they’ll be tested twice per day.

The Sheriff’s Office said, “we have increased our cleaning schedules and the amount of cleaning supplies on hand.”

As of this report, the office has not responded to questions about inmates missing court dates.

The jail is also vaccinating inmates; its last vaccination date was Friday. However, the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t say how many inmates have been vaccinated. McCray said one of the inmates who received the shot later tested positive for the virus.

This is a developing story; stay with FOX21 News for any updates.

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