Weld County Sheriff Not Doing Enough to Protect Detainees From COVID-19, Suit Claims

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams as seen on CNN, where his comments set off a media frenzy.
Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams as seen on CNN, where his comments set off a media frenzy. YouTube
Civil-rights attorneys are suing Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams in federal court, charging that Reams is not doing enough to protect jail detainees from COVID-19.

"Rather than taking proactive measures at the start of this crisis to comply with public health guidance, Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams has openly eschewed the seriousness of the pandemic and ignored the science and data underlying public health experts’ concerns regarding dangerous spread of the virus within overcrowded jails," claims the suit, which was filed on behalf of detainees by a handful of lawyers, including attorneys with the ACLU of Colorado and Killmer, Lane and Newman.

The legal complaint, filed on April 8, also notes that "Weld County is the sixth most populous jail in Colorado. Of the ten most populous Colorado jails, Weld County Jail stands out as having the lowest depopulation rate since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and the highest jail occupancy rate."

The sheriff's office declines to comment on the lawsuit, pointing out that it's "pending litigation." Joseph Moylan, a spokesperson for the office, says that there have been thirteen positive tests for deputies and nine for inmates.

Reams is being accused of not taking the COVID-19 threat in the jail seriously until around April 1, when he enacted a "Draconian" policy of locking down detainees 23 hours a day. Still, "some non-symptomatic inmates" have been "locked in cells with sick inmates," the complaint alleges.

As pointed out in the Colorado Times Recorder, Reams brought up concerns about "socialism" on March 20, when posting on Facebook about federal economic packages to help families and businesses stay afloat.

"I understand that nobody wants to catch Coronavirus but statistically, even if you catch it you’re likely to be just fine. What I’m concerned with is our Country catching a huge case of socialism," Reams wrote. "Maybe it’s just me but I’d rather take my risk with the virus then socialism."

The lawsuit's seven plaintiffs are all current detainees at the jail and either have underlying medical conditions, a history of smoking, or both. Lawyers are requesting that a judge from the U.S. District Court of Colorado certify a class for the lawsuit, which would comprise detainees who are 55 or older, have certain underlying medical conditions, have a history of smoking or other substance use disorder, or are pregnant.

In particular, the complaint asks that a judge require the jail staff to do a variety of tasks to protect detainees, including physically distancing inmates from one another and staff, disinfecting the jail on a daily basis, offering hygiene supplies to inmates free of charge and providing personal protective equipment to both inmates and staffers. The complaint also asks a judge to declare the jail's policies unconstitutional.

Last year, Reams rated international headlines after he said that he'd rather go to jail than enforce a red flag law, which sets up a process for temporarily seizing the guns of people deemed a danger to themselves or others. The Colorado Legislature enacted such a law during its 2019 session.

This lawsuit is not the only tool that lawyers have used to try to help clients in Colorado jails, which public-health experts believe could be ripe for COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week, a coalition of defense attorneys attempted to get the Colorado Supreme Court to help reduce the jail population across the state, but the  Supreme Court denied that petition within hours.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.