COVID-19: Denver Jail Virus Cases Up 32 Percent in Five Days

The Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, located at 490 West Colfax Avenue.
The Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, located at 490 West Colfax Avenue. Google Maps
Since early in Colorado's response to the COVID-19 outbreak, concerns have been raised about the spread of the virus at Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, shorthanded as the Downtown Detention Center, and Denver County Jail.

And while there have been no deaths to date directly connected to those Denver facilities (unlike fatalities associated with the Weld County Jail and the Sterling Correctional Facility), positive cases have risen by nearly a third over a period of five days.

Moreover, plenty of inmates with this diagnosis are being released back into the community, albeit after the Denver Sheriff Department "works with them to ensure they have a safe place to go," according to Denver's Joint Information Center, which is handling communications about the fight against the novel coronavirus.

On March 25, shortly before announcing a stay-at-home order for the entire state of Colorado over COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis issued guidance for law enforcement officials on how to do their jobs as safely and efficiently as possible during the pandemic. His memo, which earned plaudits from the ACLU of Colorado, encouraged detention centers to practice social distancing for inmates and staff whenever possible, suspend all visitation, ensure that no more than ten people are gathered in any confined space at the same time, develop protocols to regularly sanitize facilities, and screen individuals being booked or released, as well as all staff members, for COVID-19.

But around the same time that Polis made public his recommendations, attorney and Westword cover subject Jason Flores-Williams filed a so-called extraordinary petition, once known as a writ of mandamus, asking that the Colorado Department of Public Health "mitigate the COVID-19 crisis" in the Downtown Detention Center. Flores-Williams contended that "inmates in general population are not being tested, new inmates are not being tested before entering general population, inmates exhibiting symptoms are mixing in general population," and "inmates are eight to a cell without the ability to sanitize or protect themselves."

Polis's recommendations didn't go into immediate effect everywhere. And according to the city, "positive inmates in custody numbers have increased due to Denver Health expanding COVID-19 testing to include all new bookings at the Downtown Detention Center, which began April 27, 2020," more than a month after the advisory was issued.

In the meantime, a male inmate died in a Downtown Detention Center housing unit at 3:35 a.m. on April 10. However, Denver's Joint Information Center stresses that he "was not displaying COVID-19 symptoms."

As for people with the virus, the Joint Information Center provided Westword with two sets of statistics — the first capturing the situation on April 29, the second updated to noon yesterday, May 4. Here are the figures for for both the Downtown Detention Center and the Denver County Jail:

April 29

Downtown Detention Center

58 positive inmates in custody

15 positive inmates released

4 positive inmates recovered (in custody)

35 inmates in isolation due to COVID-19 like symptoms and are being offered the COVID-19 test by Denver Health

Denver County Jail

1 positive inmate in custody

2 positive inmates released

0 inmates in isolation

May 4

Downtown Detention Center

86 positive inmates in custody

23 positive inmates released

6 positive inmates recovered (in custody)

28 inmates in isolation due to COVID-19 like symptoms and are being offered the COVID-19 test by Denver Health.

Denver County Jail

2 positive inmates in custody

2 positive inmates released

1 inmate in isolation due to COVID-19 like symptoms and being offered the COVID-19 test by Denver Health.
The bump from 56 Downtown Detention Center inmates with positive tests on April 29 to 86 by midday on May 4 represents an increase of more than 32 percent in less than a week. Yet so far, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not included either the center or the Denver County Jail among the 157 sites in the state designated as outbreak locations.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts