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Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters about the coronavirus crisis on Thursday, May 28, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday defended steps taken by his administration to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in Colorado prisons, saying groups urging him to do more to protect inmates are using the public health crisis to advance a broader agenda. 


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“It’s no surprise that there are some in the advocacy community that want to use the pandemic as an excuse for other reforms, some of which I oppose, some of which I may support,” the Democrat said. 

Polis’ remarks came just hours after the ACLU of Colorado, an ally of Colorado Democrats, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates claiming the governor and his Department of Corrections aren’t doing enough to prevent coronavirus outbreaks. The legal action seeks an emergency order to compel the state to protect medically vulnerable inmates prioritize the release of “people who are older, sick or otherwise vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 and who pose no threat to public safety.”

The lawsuit says the virus is “spreading like wildfire in Colorado prisons.”

“In this unprecedented public health crisis, the harmful trend of mass incarceration has become a direct threat to public health,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a written statement. “Overcrowded prisons are proven hotbeds for transmission, with the two largest outbreaks in the state occurring behind bars. Because the governor and the DOC are failing to protect incarcerated people, correctional staff and ultimately the public, the court must intervene immediately to save lives.”  

More than 500 inmates at the Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado have tested positive for the disease and two have died. As many as 24 staff members at the facility also have been infected.

At Crowley County Correctional Facility, a private prison in southeast Colorado, 60 inmates and three staff members have tested positive for the virus.

But Polis said he is confident that inmates and guards at Colorado prisons are safe. He pointed to increased testing at facilities as well as mask wearing as signs that actions are being taken to ensure their safety.

An aerial image of Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado, where hundreds of inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Google Images screenshot)

“I have great confidence that the team has taken the steps they need to protect the men and women — guards in our prisons, as well as the inmates,” he said. “I think they’ve done terrific work in that regard.”

Polis said that the state will fight the ACLU’s legal challenge. 

“We will vigorously defend against any lawsuit that seeks to turn this pandemic into an effort to release dangerous criminals,” Polis said. 

The ACLU also blasted Polis for not extending an executive order he signed when the coronavirus crisis began that allowed for the special parole release ofColorado inmates for medical reasons. The order helped reduce the number of people being held in prisons, which advocates say will help keep inmates safer from coronavirus.

“In failing to renew the executive order, a governor who recently signed a law to end the death penalty in Colorado has now effectively sentenced hundreds of people inside and outside our prisons to die,” Denise Maes, the ACLU of Colorado’s public policy director, said in a written statement.

One inmate released under the order, however, went on to commit a serious crime. He allegedly killed a 21-year-old woman in Denver.

Polis did not directly answer a question about why he didn’t renew the order, but he said that prison officials have been doing everything they can to keep inmates and guards safe. The governor declined to say whether the slaying factored into his decision not to renew the order. 

“The pandemic is no excuse to let criminals out and I’m not aware of any basis to release offenders of the ACLU’s choosing as somehow an appropriate response to this crisis,” Polis said. 

The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed in Denver District Court.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....