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

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EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Months after the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in El Paso County, positive cases began to appear within the county jail.

On October 26, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office confirmed eight lab-confirmed coronavirus cases in the CJC. Less than two weeks later, on November 8, more than 850 inmates and 70 staff members tested positive for the virus.

This week, FOX21 News spoke with three inmates who are currently incarcerated at the CJC. All reported experiencing COVID-like symptoms and all had been tested – some on multiple occasions – for coronavirus, but not all received clear test results from jail staff.

“They did tell a few guys that they are positive, but there were some guys that had obvious symptoms and they weren’t told one way or the other and we were a couple of them,” Dustin Maness said.

Maness faces charges including attempted murder, theft, harassment, and robbery, said that’s one of the major issues, that inmates don’t actually know who is COVID positive and who is not.

“Sometimes you get guys with COVID passing the trays out, sometimes you get a [deputy] with a mask, without a mask, it’s just a flip of the coin,” Maness explained. “You really don’t know until they pass it out how they are going to handle it that day. One handles it differently than another one would.”

<<< Family of Maness talk about concerns with the COVID outbreak at the jail

Damian Fleetwood faces charges including ID theft, burglary, and vehicle theft. He told FOX21 some inmates have resorted to fashioning their own masks out of bedsheets. Fleetwood said those who have made their own masks in that way have been written up for doing so.

“They handed out masks, but they didn’t have enough for everybody. So, I guess when they ran out, that was it,” he said. “They didn’t tell us what to expect, what to look for even when they tested us when the National Guard came.”

Maurice Fuller is facing charges including felony menacing and criminal mischief. He said he has many questions about the current outbreak, including the status of his own health.

“I got tested once and that was like two weeks ago. I wanted to get tested again and they won’t answer my questions or nothing like that,” Fuller said.

The inmates are concerned with the protocals in place to clean the facility, pass out food, and bring in new criminals.

“New people started coming in who had just gotten arrested and they were put with people who had just supposedly tested positive so it didn’t make sense,” Fleetwood explained. “So it was like they were going to have some type of system and they just gave up on it.”

Fleetwood added that inmates are getting their temperatures checked every other day and inmates are provided with a spray bottle with a mix of peroxide and water. Hand sanitizer and filtered masks are not accessible to inmates. Deputies also ask sick inmates to stay in their cells.

“The deputies told him to stay in his cell if he was feeling that sick but they weren’t enforcing it cause he was sitting there watching tv,” Fleetwood said.

“I’m someone’s brother, someone’s son, I’m someone’s husband… it’s a general consensus in here that we are being subjected to a potential death sentence and we haven’t been found guilty,” Maness added.

The El Paso County Jail has 1305 inmates, 224 deputies and 133 civilian employees in total, according to EPSO. Those numbers fluctuate depending on the day.

FOX21 News requested an interview with the Sheriff’s Office on this topic, however they said they are not doing any interviews on this topic. Instead, they sent the below statement and information:

“We take the health and safety of our inmate population very seriously.  This current COVID situation remains the top priority of Sheriff Elder and the Staff at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. We are working diligently in collaboration with Public Health, other County leadership, and the Colorado Department of Public Health Environment.

In March, we put in place emergency operating plans as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread. We have made and continue to make significant adjustments to how we normally operate the facility to combat this outbreak. We will also continue to test and care for every employee and inmate and provide the safest facility possible under these evolving conditions.

Throughout the past few months, we have been able to dramatically decrease our jail population which has allowed for us to empty wards and have the ability to provide physical distancing. We have identified the at-risk inmates and are taking the appropriate measures based on CDC and Public Health recommendations.  The Sheriff’s Office, along with our stakeholders have done everything feasible, without sacrificing public safety to lower our inmate population.

We have Standard Operating Procedures regarding disease prevention and response in the El Paso County Jail. We have coordinated with all law enforcement agencies in the area to keep them informed on our inmate admittance screening process.  This screening process consists of answering a series of questions, as well as a temperature check prior to admittance.  If jail medical staff identifies a person with symptoms or exposure to an infectious disease such as COVID-19, they may request the arresting agency safely transport the individual to the appropriate medical facility or we may quarantine the person within the jail.

The decision of who gets moved to isolation or which areas are deemed quarantined would be a coordinated effort between our medical provider, WellPath, and our Inmate Classification Unit. For clarification purposes, “quarantine” separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. “Isolation” separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick (more restrictive than quarantine).  As it pertains to this facility, most inmates who are being observed for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure are in quarantine. We only medically isolate those who are positive, questionable, or presumed positive.

When there is an identified COVID case, Public Health will review the movements of the inmate and make a determination based on the reported information and the protocols that had been followed. They will determine if there is a significant exposure risk to staff and/or inmates. 

Although we have had to change the way inmates are served their meals and what is served, a dietician has reviewed and approved the menu which meets the standard caloric intake, as well as nutritional requirements of the Food and Drug Administration.” 

El Paso County Sheriff’s Office
  • Has any public health department employee been to the jail since the outbreak and seen how jail staff are enforcing public health’s recommendations to mitigate the spread of the virus? If not, how is the information regarding the outbreak and spread within the jail communicated to public health officials?  
    • Public Health has had numerous site visits and tours to evaluate processes and mitigation measures. We have also participated in numerous interagency calls that included jail medical staff from the early days of the pandemic through today. We are in frequent communication with each other to provide updates, assess next steps, and coordinate efforts between agencies. Public Health’s environmental health staff have also completed a review of the processes for sanitation and disinfection practices throughout the facility, in addition to medical direction and review of isolation, quarantine, admissions and discharge. 
  • I understand that the sheriff’s office has been working with health department since the start of the pandemic in March. Did the El Paso County Public Health Department ever recommend that inmates wear masks to help prevent the virus? If not, why not? Was facility-wide testing recommended? If not, why not?  
    • You can find more detail about masks in the answer to the question below. Public Health and the Sheriff’s Office have been working closely together since the start of the pandemic to implement a number of mitigation measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail. It should be noted that the prevention measures that were put in place were able to prevent an outbreak for roughly the first six months of the pandemic.  
    • El Paso County Public Health worked closely with the corrections team from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for guidance on testing, and they recommended and provided use of a rapid response team to perform facility-wide testing. Widespread testing allows for rapid identification of cases, which more effectively guides quarantine and isolation recommendations.   
    • It’s important to remember that CJC represents a unique and fluid subpopulation of El Paso County and beyond. Outbreaks such as this one and many others are a reflection of the larger burden of disease in the community. Congregate settings can be seen as a microcosm of what is reflected in the broader community, and with community spread reaching unprecedented levels, it is not surprising that outbreaks in congregate settings continue to be identified.  
       
  • The sheriff’s office has said that at the start of the pandemic there was a limited supply of PPE that was appropriate for a jail setting (those with wires inside). Was the public health department aware that the jail had a limited supply? 
    • That is correct. At the start of the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) was extremely limited, and prioritized for health care and frontline workers. There were also more specific requirements in the jail, such as securing masks that did not contain metal in the nose, that posed unique challenges. The goal was to prevent the entry of COVID-19 into the jail, and to implement alternative mitigation efforts such as decreasing population, screening, cohorting and frequent cleaning and disinfection.   
    • Despite multiple efforts to secure appropriate PPE for inmates, it was not possible to identify disposable masks that did not contain metal, which is considered contraband and provides a potential threat for inmates to cause injury to themselves or others. The prevention of self-harm or harm to others is paramount in this population.   
    • To say that inmates did not wear masks would be incorrect. Masks were not used when the inmates were in their “living quarters,” meaning where they eat, drink, and sleep. Not mandating masks in this setting is consistent with the statewide mask mandate, and with all other residential facilities including groups and group housing. Inmates were cohorted with those in their residential units but wore masks while interacting or potentially interacting with those outside their cohort. These cohorts ate and slept in close quarters as do all “roommates.” The use of masks in this setting is not feasible.   
    • All staff have been using masks since PPE was available early in the pandemic. It’s important to remember a layered approach to prevention; other mitigation efforts were emphasized which include cohorting, limiting the entry of potentially infected individuals, strict wellness checks for all those entering the jail, testing of symptomatic inmates, strict mask use by staff, etc. These efforts were incredibly effective for the first six months until community spread reached alarming levels.   
    • It was not feasible to be able to identify and distribute 1,500 metal-free disposable masks per day in a sustainable fashion that would not negatively impact supplies to our health care, first responders, law enforcement, schools and other partners.  
    • The more we do to reduce disease transmission throughout our entire community, the better chance we will have to reduce disease spread in settings such as schools, jails and nursing homes.   

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