Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Colorado, criminal justice reform advocates are again pushing Governor Jared Polis to release medically vulnerable inmates from the state's prisons.
"We got rid of the death penalty, and yet we killed people by COVID-19," said Joyce Akhahenda, treasurer of the Sam Cary Bar Association, a professional organization for Black lawyers in Denver, during a rally on the steps of the State Capitol on August 27.
Akhahenda and dozens of other lawyers and advocates had gathered in front of the Capitol as part of a Decarceration Day of Action, imploring Polis to release older detainees and those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus. Close to 900 inmates in state prisons have contracted COVID-19, and three have died from the virus.
In March, Polis issued an executive order encouraging the Department of Corrections to consider releasing significant segments of its detained population. But while approximately 16,000 prisoners could have been released under this executive order, fewer than 300 actually were let out before Polis allowed key parts of the order to expire in May, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in late May by the ACLU of Colorado.
In that complaint filed in Denver District Court, the ACLU of Colorado asked a judge to order the Department of Corrections to either release medically vulnerable prisoners or at least better protect the medically vulnerable from the COVID-19 threat. The two sides have since agreed to a settlement of the suit, according to court filings, though the details have not been released. Citing ongoing litigation, Polis's office declined to comment on the lawsuit or other requests by decarceration advocates.
The lawsuit is only part of a multi-pronged approach to securing the releases of medically vulnerable detainees.
The ACLU of Colorado is currently pushing an online campaign, No One Deserves to Die From COVID-19, that features older and medically vulnerable prisoners, including some whose COVID-19-related parole applications were denied.
One of those highlighted in the campaign is 62-year-old Ronald Johnson, who has spent 22 years in prison in Colorado on theft, forgery, fraud and drug possession convictions. Johnson, who has a myriad of health conditions and regularly uses an inhaler, has turned his life around in prison and now assists inmates with medical disabilities and mentors inmates who are earning their GED.
When he was governor, John Hickenlooper shortened Johnson's original 96-year sentence. But he's still eight years away from parole, so advocates are pushing Polis to grant Johnson an early release.
"The last governor already saw fit to cut him some grace, and that's before COVID," said Elisabeth Epps, an attorney who founded the Colorado Freedom Fund, at yesterday's event.
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“In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social-distance," Johnson's daughter Amber says in a statement. "My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”
Advocates and lawyers at the August 27 rally believe that Polis may be reluctant to speed up the release of detainees after the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old woman in Denver in May; Cornelius Haney, a man who had been recently paroled under stipulations from Polis's executive order and was just months away from mandatory parole, has been charged with the crime.
"Let's not use Cornelius Haney or anybody else or the fear of someone committing a crime as an excuse not to do what is just and actually right," urged Abron Mustafa Arrington of the Second Chance Center. Arrington himself received a sentence commutation from Polis back in December 2019, after spending 31 years locked up for a felony murder conviction.
"I know a lot of the people that you've talked about who need to be released and they should be released," Arrington said. "Ron Johnson, I know him personally. He should be released."