Inmate Claims COVID-19 Mess at Denver Jails

Inside Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, 490 West Colfax.
Inside Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, 490 West Colfax.
An inmate who's done time at Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center and the Denver County Jail in recent months contends that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc at the facilities. He describes being essentially placed in solitary confinement for nearly three weeks after being exposed to another detainee with the disease, frequent moves from pod to pod, low-level criminals being housed with the most dangerous accused felons as authorities scramble for quarantine spaces, and guards who tend to only don facial coverings to shut up men in custody screaming at them to mask up.

"There's no way to avoid it once it gets in here," the inmate says of the virus. "It's so close in here that it'll spread like wildfire. It's just a matter of time."

Daria Serna, a spokesperson for the Denver Sheriff Department, which is in charge of the jails, declines to address the specific claims of the inmate because we're not identifying him (he says he's concerned about possible retribution). But via email, she paints a very different picture of life inside the institutions.

"As with other jails or prisons responding to an international pandemic, this has been a learning process for everyone," Serna acknowledges. "Many Denver Sheriff Department and Denver Health employees have worked many hours and have adjusted processes and procedures as they have been issued by the CDC, local health departments, City & County of Denver and State of Colorado. Our number-one priority is the safety and security of those in our custody and our employees."

Both the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center and the Denver County Jail are listed as active outbreaks in the latest report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The detention center was determined to be an outbreak on April 30, and the department counts 212 positive resident cases, 420 probable resident cases, eight positive staff cases and eleven probable staff cases there since then. As for the Denver County Jail, the CDPHE cites thirty positive resident cases, 51 probable resident cases, three positive staff cases and one probable staff case.

The Denver Sheriff Department maintains its own COVID-19 dashboard intended to offer more up-to-date statistics; they exclude staff cases in favor of positives recorded at intake or within the respective jails. The most recent numbers for the combined facilities, calculated on October 5, show seven active or positive cases, 240 resolved positives and 97 released positives, for a cumulative total of 344. As of October 5, twelve individuals were in quarantine with symptoms, awaiting test results.

On that date, the total number of tests administered stood at 9,992, including one given to the inmate shortly after he turned himself in at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center in July to begin serving a ninety-day sentence. "Within five hours, I had contact with COVID-19 and I was quarantined," he recalls. "They said the guy sitting next to me was positive, and everybody who came in was getting quarantined. They locked me in a cell 23 hours a day for nineteen days."

He's surprised that he managed to avoid contracting the virus, since "it was running rampant — and the city was running out of places to quarantine people. After I got out, I just kept my bags packed, because I was moving from pod to pod."

During this period, he continues, "I was working in the laundry and I delivered new sheets and linens to some of the felony pods, where they had people in for non-violent crimes, too, because of all the quarantines. These people were scared to death, but they wouldn't cut them loose. It made no sense, putting non-violent people in the gang unit for traffic crimes. Some of them were in tears, they were so afraid."

Outside the Denver County Jail, 10500 East Smith Road. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Outside the Denver County Jail, 10500 East Smith Road.
Eventually, the inmate was transferred to Denver County Jail, "and that's where we really have a problem," he says. "A lot of people are older there — people with asthma and things like that. And even though the place is a time bomb, none of the guards wear masks. They scream and yell at us about wearing our masks, but they're the ones going in and out with no masks on. Sometimes if ten or fifteen of us yell, 'Put your mask on!' at them, they'll do it, but you don't really want to complain too much, because then they'll start treating you like garbage. You know, showing off to each other."

The inmate acknowledges that the pod he's in currently is only at around 50 percent capacity, "but the bunks are right next to each other — like, two feet away. So it's really something to worry about."

The DSD's Serna stresses that authorities are concerned, too, which is why they've instituted strict protocols. Here's her breakdown of procedures:
Intake & Housing Process: As individuals come into intake at the Downtown Detention Center each individual is tested for COVID-19 by Denver Health and provided a face covering. Individuals awaiting test results are housed strategically according to their classification. The proactive reduction of the jail population to slow the spread of COVID-19 resulted in empty housing units, which allowed the Denver Sheriff Department to strategically house individuals awaiting test results, those that tested positive and those exposed to COVID-19 within the jail. Individuals are housed by an objective classification system, which takes into consideration many factors. Individuals that are exposed to COVID-19 in the jail by being housed with an individual that tests positive are moved to quarantine for a certain number of days while be observed by Denver Health medical staff. Each case is different and evaluated individually by Denver Health. The large reduction in the jail population has allowed the ability to social distance individuals in the best way possible in a jail setting. The COVID-19 data available on our Data & Policies shows how the COVID-19 cases have decreased over time due to the processes and procedures that have been developed and refined since this pandemic began.

Cleaning & Disinfecting: Cleaning of the intake area at the Downtown Detention Center was increased to four times a day. Mandatory cleaning of the housing units was increased to three times a day specifically after each meal. More cleaning products such as disinfectant wipes and similar products are available to staff and inmates. Inmates have access to soap and water to wash their hands regularly. Inmates do not have access to hand sanitizer due to the amount of alcohol that is required to kill the COVID-19 virus. Staff has access to bleach wipes which can be utilized to clean any area of the jail while under the supervision of a deputy.

Data for Average Jail Population: The data posted on DSD’s website shows that Denver Sheriff Department in mid-March took quick action to start reducing the jail population, which has been a team effort between the Sheriff Department, Police Department, Denver Health, County Court, District Court and District Attorney’s Office. The Denver Sheriff Department continues to review the jail population on a regular basis and work with these partners to determine release eligibility; each situation is unique and reviewed individually. We also continue to work closely with our community resource partners to ensure individuals being released who need to also be connected to reentry services are receiving that opportunity. The jail population at one point had been reduced by 45 percent.

Wearing of Masks: The Denver Sheriff Department staff sworn and civilian are required to wear face coverings in the jails per the State’s order. DSD supervisors are required to enforce this order. N-95 masks have been made available to staff that are working with COVID-19 inmate(s). 
The inmate suggests that there's a great distance between these ideals and the realities he's seeing on a daily basis. Once he's released, he says, he's concerned that he'll carry the virus home to his wife, a four-time cancer survivor who was just re-diagnosed.

Still, he can't wait to get out of what he sees as the equivalent of a Petri dish. As he puts it, "I'm so over this place."
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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