Prison interior. Jail cells, dark background.

Nearly one year after the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Colorado, a federal judge has signed off on a settlement between the Weld County sheriff and attorneys for medically-vulnerable detainees, which stipulates the masking, testing and sanitization protocols the jail is to follow during the pandemic.

"Initially Sheriff [Steve] Reams was not taking COVID-19 seriously," said Daniel D. Williams, an attorney with Hutchinson Black and Cook, who represented the plaintiffs. "After the preliminary injunction hearing and the court’s ruling last spring, Weld County agreed to engage and work cooperatively to develop best practices to prevent further outbreaks at the jail, which we appreciated."

On April 7, 2020, seven individuals who were confined at the Weld County jail asked for a court order that Reams take steps to protect medically-vulnerable inmates from the novel coronavirus. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer issued an injunction on May 11, and extended it several times until its expiration on Feb. 5 of this year.

The parties signed a consent decree on Feb. 12, which applies to all current and future inmates at the jail who are medically vulnerable. That designation includes people who are 65 years or older, have chronic lung disease or asthma, who are severely obese, or who have cancer, among other ailments. Those detainees who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their underlying health conditions will remain under the consent decree until the end of the public health emergency.

While the consent decree does not acknowledge any wrongdoing from the sheriff's office, it lists the procedures the jail staff will follow or attempt to follow to protect the class of medically-vulnerable inmates. Those actions include identifying them during booking, placing them alone in cells, isolating those who test positive for COVID-19, letting healthcare professionals monitor class members for symptoms, and attempting to reduce the jail population by "minimizing the scope of arrestees."

The chief judge of the 19th Judicial District in Weld County will receive a list every other week of all inmates at the jail, as will attorneys at the ACLU of Colorado, which assisted the plaintiffs in the case. The sheriff will also pay the plaintiffs' attorneys more than $122,000.

Prior to approval, the court received two objections from detainees about the settlement. Bret Brockel believed he was entitled to monetary damages, which, as attorneys for the plaintiffs noted, he would still be able to pursue even with the settlement.

"Federal law generally makes such claims for money damages difficult, but not impossible," said Williams. "It was important to us that our settlement with Weld County left this door open for anyone held at the Weld County jail who wanted to pursue it."

Patrick D. Kane also voiced concern that some deputies at the jail were still not wearing masks or maintaining distance, and that sanitation protocols were lacking. Brimmer found that the consent decree had provisions to halt those alleged practices, including a mask mandate for staff and the provision of cloth masks to all inmates.

"The court finds that the negotiations were done fairly and honestly," Brimmer concluded in his Feb. 16 approval of the settlement. 

Among other stipulations of the consent decree, detainees who are in medical isolation must have a "non-punitive" environment that maintains their access to personal items, time outside of their cell and recreational materials. Disinfectant spray approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will go on all surfaces and, to the extent possible, medically-vulnerable inmates should only be housed with other medically-vulnerable inmates if there are capacity constraints.

Williams said approximately half of the 550 inmates in the jail on a given date are medically vulnerable.

Last month, the Colorado Health Institute, a research and project management organization, released a report showing one out of every 24 cases of COVID-19 in Colorado stemmed from an outbreak in a detention center. There have been more than 16,000 reported cases among inmates and staff, and 32 recorded deaths.

In December, the ACLU of Colorado also filed suit against the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for health conditions there.

A spokesperson for the Weld County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the consent agreement.

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