Although Steve Reams appears to be cooperating with a federal judge's ruling that he take more precautions to protect medically vulnerable jail detainees, the Weld County sheriff is definitely feeling upset about it.
"Never in my six years as your elected sheriff have I been more personally disappointed by a court’s ruling. I am deeply offended the term 'deliberate indifference' was applied to me and my decisions as they pertain to the operations of the Weld County Jail. I believe the entire jail staff should be commended for their diligence and dedication during one of the most trying times in recent memory," Reams says in a statement responding to a U.S. District Court of Colorado ruling handed down May 11.
In that ruling, Philip A. Brimmer, the court's chief judge, said that Reams had exhibited "deliberate indifference" by not taking those precautions. "Plaintiffs’ conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution," said Brimmer, then concluded that the sheriff's "social distancing efforts with respect to medically vulnerable inmates has not been reasonable."
"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," Mark Silverstein, an ACLU of Colorado attorney who is part of the consortium of lawyers suing Reams, told Westword after the ruling came out.
Brimmer's ruling had two requirements: that Reams compile a list of medically vulnerable detainees, and also that he enact a series of measures to keep them safe by May 21.
On May 18, Reams submitted a list of 89 medically vulnerable detainees to the court. "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 sheriff says in his statement.
But Reams notes that the jail doesn't have the space to place each medically vulnerable detainee in his own cell "without completely placing the rest of the inmate population at a heightened risk." The sheriff says he also feels uncomfortable about placing all medically vulnerable detainees together in small units, since he believes "it could have dire consequences should we have another COVID-19 outbreak in the jail."
Like other corrections facilities in Colorado, the Weld County Jail has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A dozen Weld County detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Two of those detainees were already positive when they were booked into the jail, according to Reams. Additionally, eighteen deputy sheriffs working in the jail have tested positive for the virus; seventeen of those deputies have already returned to work.
Those numbers do not include Charles Peterson, a 78-year-old Greeley resident who died of COVID-19 on April 1, two days after being released from the Weld County Jail. Officials with the sheriff's office contend that Peterson was not exhibiting any symptoms of the virus while he was in detention.
At the conclusion of his statement, Reams, who refers to the lawsuit as "frivolous," says that he believes his "jail operation has been, and continues to be, one of the finest correctional facilities in the country."
The court has set a scheduling conference with both sides of the case for July 9.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.