Judge Rules Weld County Sheriff Not Doing Enough to Protect Detainees

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
A federal judge just ruled that the Weld County Sheriff has not done 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 at the U.S. District Court of Colorado, wrote in a May 11 ruling, adding that he "concludes that [the sheriff's] social distancing efforts with respect to medically vulnerable inmates has not been reasonable."

Brimmer's opinion, which was prompted by a lawsuit filed by civil-rights attorneys against Sheriff Steve Reams, requires the sheriff to compile a list of medically vulnerable detainees currently held at the jail and enact a series of measures to keep them safe by May 21.

"This ruling should be required reading for every sheriff who runs a county jail. Every jail houses inmates who fit the criteria for being especially vulnerable if they contract COVID-19. Every sheriff has the same duty the court identified here: to identify the prisoners who fit those criteria and take special measures to protect them, including social distancing, improved cleaning and sanitation, and provision of personal protective equipment," says Mark Silverstein, an ACLU of Colorado lawyer who was part of a group of local attorneys that filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven jail detainees.

In their April 7 filing, the lawyers asked a judge to certify a class of medically vulnerable detainees and order their release from the jail.

Although a majority of the detainees who were parties to the case have since been released, the legal fight will continue, since the judge ruled only on a motion for a preliminary injunction and didn't address whether medically vulnerable detainees must be released from the jail.

Attorneys representing Reams, whose office declined to comment on Brimmer's ruling, have argued that the sheriff did, in fact, take the COVID-19 threat seriously and ordered proactive measures to protect detainees in the jail.

The Weld County Jail has the capacity for 1,170 detainees. At the end of April, there were only 478 detainees housed in the jail.

But the case against Reams argues that he didn't do enough early enough. "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," the suit argues.

Like Weld County at large, the jail has been hit particularly hard, with at least ten confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees and at least seventeen among deputies. On April 1, 78-year-old Charles Peterson died from COVID-19 two days after being released from the jail. According to a jail spokesperson, Peterson hadn't displayed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 while he was detained.

“Weld County’s lawyer argued that the judge should excuse the sheriff’s failure to take COVID-19 more seriously because there had ‘only been one death.’ Today's order makes clear that when it comes to COVID-19, half measures don't cut it. Jails need to take aggressive measures to keep medically vulnerable people safe," says Dan Williams, one of the lawyers representing the detainees.

On May 12, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office sent out this response from Reams to the ruling:"Weld County Sheriff’s Office staff are compiling data about medically vulnerable inmates at the Weld County Jail in accordance with the court’s order. Once that process is complete, the sheriff will decide about future jail operations that take into consideration risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic while also assuring the safety of Weld County residents."

Other Colorado correctional facilities have been the site of COVID-19 outbreaks. At the Downtown Detention Center in Denver, at least 84 inmates have contracted COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. And at the Sterling Correctional Facility, a prison run by the state's Department of Corrections, 329 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19; two of those inmates have died.
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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.