The ACLU of Colorado on Wednesday asked a judge to issue an emergency order reducing Colorado’s prison population in the wake of four inmate deaths over two days linked to coronavirus.
The request argues that Gov. Jared Polis has been too slow in taking steps to protect the 17,621 people incarcerated in Colorado prisons from contracting coronavirus, and that exposing them to the disease amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The advocacy group filed the request for a preliminary injunction in Denver District Court, naming Polis and Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams as defendants.
Wednesday’s motion is part of a lawsuit filed in May against the governor and Williams. Anna Holland Edwards, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU, explained that the request seeks to expedite the legal action, given Colorado’s worsening coronavirus situation.
“We don’t have time to wait for the regular process to go to trial, because people are dying,” Holland Edwards said.
In the motion, ACLU lawyers argue that keeping prison populations as high as they are now violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment for prisoners, by putting them at elevated risk for infection.
The lawsuit also cites a Colorado Department of Corrections analysis of Sterling Correctional Facility as a case study, which found that reducing the population to 75-80% of capacity would lead to more single-occupancy cells — though there would still be some double bunks — and generally mitigate viral spread and mortality.
Though the ACLU is not asking for a specific number of prisoners to be released, it estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 prisoners would need to be released from state prisons to hit the model’s capacity threshold of 80-85% for the state overall. Roughly 300 prisoners were released this spring as part of an executive order that Polis let expire.
Holland Edwards said Polis has been a champion for following and enforcing public health guidance, albeit for free citizens.
“If he would show the same commitment to incarcerated citizens, then we wouldn’t need this process at all,” Holland Edwards said. “There’s no reason this hasn’t happened already. There’s no reason this couldn’t start today.”
Polis’ office declined to comment on pending litigation.
The ACLU settled the part of the lawsuit pertaining to the Department of Corrections in November. The terms of the settlement included increasing prisoners’ access to masks and other hygiene supplies, prioritizing housing for those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and streamlining the parole process.
On Monday, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office settled a separate lawsuit filed by the ACLU to ensure similar protections for county jail inmates.