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| Prisons |

Denver Jail Inmates "Punished" for Negative COVID Tests, Attorney Says

The Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, located at 490 West Colfax Avenue.
The Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, located at 490 West Colfax Avenue.
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In a motion filed January 5 in Denver District Court, attorney Jason Flores-Williams claims that COVID-19 is "raging out of control" at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, the city's main jail, and officials' efforts to deal with the situation have resulted in terrible conditions for inmates no matter their infection status.

For instance, individuals who have not tested positive or been exposed to an infected individual are allegedly "being kept in segregated isolation with seven or eight other inmates and allowed out for only one hour per day," he says.

As a result, according to Flores-Williams, such inmates are "essentially in ad-seg" — administrative segregation — "or what you would call the SHU [segregated housing unit]. They're in a jail within the jail, just the same as if they'd done something wrong, and are being 'rewarded' by being jammed in crammed quarters, and only being let out for an hour a day. House pets are being treated better now."

The motion was filed in the name of Elijah Martinez, a teenager charged with murder for an incident that took place on New Year's Day 2020. Flores-Williams sees the case as a matter of self-defense, but he's been delayed as a result of the pandemic from laying out his entire argument on behalf of Martinez.

"The trial was set for January 15, but now, who knows?" Flores-Williams explains. "All my trials that were set for January and February are likely going to be reset, so we're already accepting a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. People who are presumed innocent are sitting in jails for months on end because of the current crisis. And why do these sacrifices always land on people who are incarcerated and marginalized?"

There's no question that the detention center has been hit hard by COVID-19. The site was declared an outbreak by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on April 30, 2020, and the CDPHE's latest update, released on December 30, shows that the faciliity remains under active investigation — making it one of the longest continuing inquiries in the state. The department lists 988 resident and 83 staff member cases, for a total of 1,071...and counting.

The Denver jail is hardly the only such facility to be accused of violating inmate rights. The same day Flores-Williams filed his motion on behalf of Martinez, a judge dealing with an ACLU of Colorado class-action lawsuit involving the El Paso County jail ordered the sheriff's department there to immediately institute a number of preliminary safety steps, including making mask use mandatory. Flores-Williams praises the ACLU for taking on this issue, but he thinks the judge's mandate "just scratches the surface. Simply wearing masks in confined quarters should be de rigueur — what should happen automatically. And I'm talking about the Denver jail, where the virus is running rampant."

Flores-Williams acknowledges that adjustments regarding courts and incarceration must be made in order to deal with the disease. "Any reasonable, thinking person understands that expectations have to be modified with regard to treatment of incarcerated people," he says. "But they cannot be lowered to the point where they violate the Eighth Amendment," which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, "and the basic tenets of human rights."

His motion includes this: "I quote Dostoevsky, who wrote, 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.' And it's clear these people have been forgotten and thus condemned. I understand that things are difficult and challenging, and institutions are being taxed in ways they never have been in American history. But it's incumbent on us to understand the pain of these situations and find humanity rather than simply writing off people who may become ill or even die. We need to think creatively about what we're doing during the darkest hour of the pandemic."

Westword has reached out to both the Denver Sheriff Department and the Department of Safety for comment; click to read the motion for review of Denver jail conditions.

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