Federal Judge Orders Weld County Sheriff To Protect Medically Fragile Inmates

Weld County North Jail Complex in Greeley
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Weld County North Jail Complex in Greeley, April, 2020.

A federal judge has ordered Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams to provide more protections for medically vulnerable prisoners inside his jail during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed last month.

In a preliminary injunction granted on Monday, judge Philip Brimmer ruled that Reams was violating prisoners' constitutional rights, and that he didn't take adequate steps to protect the particularly medically vulnerable inmates inside the jail.

Reams was sued by a handful of civil rights attorneys, including the American Civil Liberties Union. The attorneys represented seven medically vulnerable inmates inside the Weld County Jail. Two were still inside at the end of April.

ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein called Reams "blase" about COVID-19 at the beginning. That attitude, Silverstein said, led to one death and several sick inmates and staffers.

A federal injunction is an extremely high hurdle to reach legally. A judge must find that there would be "irreparable harm" to people if his orders aren't undertaken immediately.

Reams will be required to start taking steps inside the jail as soon as next week.

"I think every sheriff that runs a county jail should be required to read this," Silverstein said. "Every sheriff has the same constitutional duty that the judge identified in this case. Every sheriff has prisoners inside the jail who fit the CDC guidelines of elevated risk who could die of this virus."

Brimmer's order requires Sheriff Reams to identify inmates who are medically vulnerable, provide them with single cells to the greatest extent possible, monitor them for signs of illness and adequately clean communal spaces.

The Weld County sheriff was not immediately available to comment. A call and an email to the county's contract attorneys who defended Reams in court went unanswered late Monday.

Silverstein said lawyers will seek a permanent injunction, but that this first hurdle will provide relief right away to dozens of people.