Detainee Death in Weld County Jail Possibly COVID-Related

Weld County Jail has been the scene of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Weld County Jail has been the scene of a COVID-19 outbreak. Flickr/Chad Spangler
Anthony Griego, a Weld County Jail detainee, died early today, May 20, from COVID-19, say civil-rights attorneys suing Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams over what they argue is his failure to protect medically vulnerable detainees from COVID-19.

The 19th Judicial District Critical Incident Response Team is investigating the in-custody death. Asked whether the 47-year-old Griego's passing was related to COVID-19, Joseph Moylan, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, says that he "can’t answer that at this point of the investigation."

If it's confirmed that COVID-19 was responsible for Griego's death, that would be the second death linked to the outbreak of the virus in the Weld County Jail. Charles Peterson, 78, died of COVID-19 on April 1, just two days after he had been released from the facility.

On February 18, Griego had pleaded guilty to charges of assault in the second degree as an act of domestic violence and first-degree arson; he was set to be sentenced on May 22.

In March, Griego was transported from the jail to the hospital and tested for COVID-19. When the ACLU of Colorado inspected the jail prior to filing the lawsuit in early April, a medical expert who testified in court on behalf of those suing the jail saw Griego "on oxygen and in a cell with other people," according to Mark Silverstein, an ACLU of Colorado attorney involved in the lawsuit.

In recent weeks, Griego had spoken with the attorneys suing Reams about his experience. "We were going to have a declaration from him," Silverstein says. "But then, on the day that we were going to talk with him to verify the facts we have from the interviews, he had been taken to the hospital a second time."

On May 11, in response to a preliminary motion filed in connection with the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that Reams wasn't doing enough to protect medically vulnerable jail detainees from COVID-19.

"Plaintiffs’ conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution," Philip A. Brimmer, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Colorado, wrote in the ruling, adding that he "concludes that [the sheriff's] social distancing efforts with respect to medically vulnerable inmates has not been reasonable."

Brimmer set two requirements for Reams: He had to produce a list of medically vulnerable detainees, and also implement measures to protect these detainees from COVID-19.

Reams, who said he was "deeply offended" by the judge's ruling, has already complied with the first requirement, filing the list in court earlier this week. Shortly after, he issued a statement noting that "the next step is to outline for the court a plan to either single-cell all medically vulnerable inmates or house them together in small family units to protect them from COVID-19."

The jail doesn't have enough space to place each medically vulnerable detainee in his own cell "without completely placing the rest of the inmate population at a heightened risk," Reams said, adding that he also feels uncomfortable about placing medically vulnerable detainees together in small units, since "it could have dire consequences should we have another COVID-19 outbreak in the jail."

Like other correctional facilities in Colorado, the Weld County Jail, which has a capacity of 1,170 but had a detainee population of just 430 on May 16, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Twelve detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. That figure includes two detainees who had COVID-19 before they came to the jail, but does not include Peterson, since he was not exhibiting symptoms while in jail, according to the sheriff's office.

Additionally, eighteen deputy sheriffs working in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19; seventeen of them have already returned to work.
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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.