The Broncos season may have come to an end, but some team members are still on the field, working to get Governor Jared Polis to release more inmates from state prisons.
“Today a Black person has a one-in-three chance of ending up in prison,” Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons says in a new TV ad that he worked on with the ACLU of Colorado. “For us, that would be like losing nineteen members of our football team. That would be a major loss for us, just as it is for our communities.”
“Governor Polis, you have the clemency powers to save lives and define what redemption looks like in our state,” adds cornerback De'Vante Bausby in the segment, which will debut on television this evening, January 12.
Simmons, Bausby and linebacker Alexander Johnson all appear in the ad wearing "People. Not Prisons." shirts. The teammates, along with returner Diontae Spencer, have been pushing Polis over the past month to safely decarcerate prisons as a way to get people out of harm's way during the pandemic.
On December 21, the four players met with Polis over Zoom and encouraged him to use his clemency powers to release as many inmates as possible. Two days later, however, Polis commuted the sentences of just four individuals.
"It just was very disheartening and very disappointing," Simmons told Westword. "We’ve all, whether personally or someone in our families, been affected by being granted a second chance, and we really see how that opportunity can change a family and the lifestyle of that family. ... We’re talking about people’s lives, families' lives, and there are stories around each person."
The advertisement points out that the governor of Washington has released 1,000 inmates during the pandemic, while the governor of Kentucky has released 900. Polis, on the other hand, has ordered the release of just those four individuals whose sentences were commuted; they're slated to be released from prison on January 15.
“We are either a nation of ‘we the people’ or ‘we the prisons’ — we can’t be both,” Johnson says in the ad.
Close to 8,000 Colorado prison inmates have tested positive for COVID throughout the pandemic, including 25 who have died from the disease. The ACLU of Colorado and other advocacy organizations have been pushing Polis to move prison inmates higher on the vaccine priority list for Colorado, given the fact that social distancing in correctional settings is nearly impossible. And while the state initially indicated that it would prioritize inmates, it later pushed inmates back into the general-public vaccination phase.
"Governor Polis evaluates each clemency application individually, understands the weighty responsibility that comes with each decision, and does not let his judgment be clouded by advertisements," says spokesman Conor Cahill. "Each commutation application presents a challenging decision that the Governor considers very seriously, and he weighs individual circumstances and public safety, relying upon input from many sources, including the Executive Clemency Advisory Board. The Governor appreciates the Broncos civic engagement and commitment to criminal justice reform but clemency is only appropriate for individual case decisions; it's not a tool for sweeping systematic change. The Governor is committed to working with members of the Denver Broncos organization and anyone else who wants to join him in creating real, systemic change.”
The call for decarceration isn't the only political play made by Broncos. Members have been pushing for criminal-justice reform since the George Floyd protests began in Denver in late May. In June, a handful of players, most notably Johnson, publicly advocated for the passage of SB-217, a sweeping bipartisan police reform and accountability bill that lawmakers created in response to the demands of protesters.
Update: This story has been updated to add a statement by Governor Polis's spokesman.