County Jails Grapple With How To Stop The Spread Of Coronavirus In An Inherently Confined Space

Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin/CDC
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread throughout the state, county jails have taken different approaches for how to mitigate the spread of the virus.

But a Colorado coalition said the only way to protect those in jails to reduce inmate populations to one inmate per cell.

Sgt. Deborah Mynatt, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s office, said Friday it's thinking ahead and has a plan in place.

“The concern is there for a lot of us,” Mynatt said. “Our number one goal is to provide that public safety and have a very secure jail, and in order to do that we have to be proactive and plan ahead.”

In a letter sent to families of those incarcerated, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said it’s likely a number of staff and inmates will become infected.

No inmates have tested positive for the virus but two deputies who work in the jail have. That doesn’t include another five deputies that work outside the jail who have tested positive, or Deputy Jeff Hopkins, who died from the new coronavirus on Wednesday. Hopkins worked at the jail’s intake and release. 

El Paso County deputies are screened by medical staff for possible symptoms before they enter the jail and they’re sent home if they do show any, Mynatt said. Deputies also have access to personal protective equipment and disinfectant while in jail. Mynatt said inmates normally don’t have access to products like hand sanitizer because its considered contraband but they do now.

This is how just one Colorado jail has been trying to effectively manage during the COVID-19 pandemic. But jails around the state are operating under different protocols.

A coalition that includes the Office of the State Public Defender, Colorado’s Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel filed two emergency petitions Friday asking the state Supreme Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails. The petition wants the court to issue statewide guidance on the number of people who are arrested and booked, people who are held in jail on unaffordable bonds and people held in jail for certain sentences.

It’s impossible for inmates to practice social distancing without a dramatic decrease in jails' populations, said Tristan Gorman, Colorado’s Legislative Policy Coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

“While some jails have really made substantial progress under the guidance from Gov. Polis, the response has been extremely uneven,” she said. “There are some county jails, including large ones along the front range, who are still falling short.”

The Weld County jail is under full quarantine after one inmate and three detention deputies tested positive for COVID-19. Spokesman Joe Moylan said Thursday that deputies are doing the best they can to protect their inmates’ health while maintaining their own. 

"In terms of law enforcement and public safety, we're kind of in a tough spot,” Moylan said. “We can't exactly not come into work but we realize that we're all at high-risk."

Moylan said deputies will monitor the same group of inmates rather than rotating between shifts. The jail released some inmates early so it has extra space to help inmates practice social distancing. Deputies have also been encouraged to bring a spare change of clothes to use when they leave work.

Gov. Jared Polis said Friday during a news conference that his office is working with county sheriffs to reduce the impact of the new coronavirus outbreaks on jails.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Weld County Sheriff's Office Spokesman Joe Moylan.