Despite Denver reducing its jail population by nearly half over the last two months, the latest state health data revealed the coronavirus outbreak is hitting the city hardest within its downtown detention center.
At least 84 inmates and one employee at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19, according to May 6 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Meanwhile, the Denver District Attorney’s Office has worked with the sheriff department and the courts since March to reduce the jail population by 48.2%, according to May 7 figures provided to city leaders in a daily email update from the mayor's office.
“We believe that we have done all we can to reduce the jail population without compromising public safety,” DA spokesperson Carolyn Tyler told Colorado Politics in an email. “We are doing a good job of balancing community safety with the safety of inmates and staff at the jails.”
The downtown detention center and the Denver County Jail together typically average about 2,000 inmates, the Denver Sheriff Department estimates. Currently, the jail population is down to 1,036 inmates, the mayor’s office reports.
As part of reduction efforts, the DA’s office has worked with defense attorneys and the courts to release some inmates who are at high-risk of COVID-19, including pregnant women, people age 60 and older, and those who have little time left on their sentences. The office is also leveraging in-home detention in "appropriate" circumstances.
“We have spent many, many hours reviewing cases of those held in both the city and county jails to facilitate early release,” Tyler wrote. “When someone is arrested and brought to court for a bond hearing, the deputy district attorneys are agreeing to personal recognizance bonds or low bonds on as many cases as possible, enabling the person to be released. We are working every day to assist in reducing the jail population.”
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the extent to which jails and prisons have become COVID-19 hotspots. Of the 37 jurisdiction that chose to participate, 86% reported at least one positive case of the virus among inmates or staff members, spanning 420 facilities.
As of April 21, according to the CDC, 4,893 cases and 88 deaths have been reported among inmates. Another 2,778 cases and 15 deaths have been reported among staff members.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent a letter in March to Colorado sheriffs, calling for them to “immediately and safely” decrease the number of prisoners so that “all inmates and correctional staff can practice social distancing, including during sleeping hours.”
Without a substantial decrease in the state’s jails and prisons, “COVID-19 will turn incarceration into a death sentence for some Colorado prisoners,” ACLU of Colorado spokeswoman Rebecca Wallace said in a statement at the time.
“This is a particularly cruel outcome given that most of the people incarcerated in our jails are pre-trial, have not been convicted of a crime, and remain behind bars only because they cannot afford the money bond to get out," Wallace said.