Prison Inmates Suing Polis Administration Over COVID-19 Threat

Gary Winston has been incarcerated since December 2019.
Gary Winston has been incarcerated since December 2019. Courtesy of Sandy Winston
Every day, Sandy Winston prays for God to protect her husband, Gary, a 58-year-old with underlying medical conditions who is currently incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

"The last time we talked to him, he said the virus was everywhere, that no one was safe in there," Sandy says.

So far, Sandy's prayers have been answered: Despite being housed since last December in a prison that has become the site of a massive outbreak of COVID-19, Gary has not become infected. Nor, however, has the Colorado Springs resident been paroled, even though he's clearly susceptible to the virus and has already served much of his one-year sentence for drug possession.

Now, Gary Winston is asking for a judge to order his release, along with that of other medically vulnerable prisoners, or at least to ensure that they're better protected from the virus. On May 28, he and four other Colorado prison inmates filed a class-action lawsuit in Denver District Court against state officials, claiming that they aren't doing enough to protect medically vulnerable detainees from the COVID-19 threat.

β€œThe Colorado Department of Corrections knows exactly what it needs to do to save lives β€” reduce the population of its prisons. Their refusal to prioritize the safety of vulnerable people by releasing those who are not a public safety risk, and implement adequate protocols for others, essentially imposes a death sentence on many people in their custody," Anna Holland-Edwards, one of the civil-rights attorneys who filed the lawsuit, says in a statement. The office of Governor Jared Polis, one of the defendants named in the case, declined to comment.

The lawsuit is asking a state judge to require that Colorado prison officials make a list of all inmates who are particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19, then mandate that those officials either release the prisoners through mechanisms such as parole or "immediately prioritize their safe housing, protective measures, and conditions that allow for physical distancing."

Those requests are similar to what the ACLU of Colorado, legal counsel in this latest lawsuit, and other civil-rights attorneys pushed for in a recent legal complaint against the sheriff of Weld County. In a preliminary ruling issued May 11, Chief Judge Phillip A. Brimmer of the District Court of Colorado said that Sheriff Steve Reams had not done enough to protect medically vulnerable detainees at the Weld County Jail, and required that Reams compile a list of all such detainees at the jail and document for the court how their risk of contracting COVID-19 is being mitigated.

Sandy Winston is hoping that the judge in her husband's lawsuit responds as quickly. She's been putting off surgery related to her stage 4 colon cancer until Gary can get home and take care of her. "I'm not worried about me," she adds. "I'm worried about him. He's all I have."

Like Gary Winston, two of the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed May 28 are incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

As of May 27, over 500 prisoners in the Sterling prison β€” where all inmates have been tested β€” and over 20 staff members there had tested positive for COVID-19; two of the prisoners have died.

Aside from Governor Polis, the other named defendant in the suit is Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. The filing notes that in an April 21 email, Williams wrote that he knows "reducing prison density is the only tool left" to fix the situation at Sterling and other state prisons. "I am aggressively going after reducing density at that prison and overall," Williams added.

But those words from Williams and an executive order from Polis encouraging the Department of Corrections to consider releasing significant segments of its detained population "have proved little more than lip service," the lawsuit charges. Fewer than 300 of the approximately 16,000 prisoners who could have been released under this executive order have actually gotten out, according to the complaint, which adds: "If the Governor and his agencies had done what they acknowledged was necessary to save lives, the Court would not be reading this Complaint."

For Sandy Winston, the complaint is about more than getting Gary home.

"It's not just him," she says. "There's other men in there that are in the same situation. They're human. They all are."
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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.