Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic and amid the state’s largest surge in critical cases, how much protection jail inmates get from the virus depends a lot on where they’re incarcerated.
CPR News has found that jails across the state have varying policies on both supplying masks and requiring inmates to wear them throughout their jail stays.
In Arapahoe County’s jail, for example, inmates are issued a surgical mask once they’re booked but are allowed to take it off while they’re in the dayrooms. The sheriff’s office issues N95 masks to medically vulnerable people.
In Adams County, arrestees are tested for COVID-19 when they get to jail. If they are negative, they don’t have to wear masks when they’re in their housing units.
In Denver, inmates are given masks, but are not required to wear them. In Morgan County, inmates are isolated for 14 days before they join the regular population. But once inside, they’re not required to wear masks at all.
And in El Paso County, the site of one of the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks currently, where more than 700 people tested positive just last week, sheriff's officials say they only started providing cloth masks to inmates earlier this month.
“Masks were reserved for those that Medical placed into quarantine status or in an isolation status,” said Sgt. Deborah Mynatt, in a statement. “Effective the week of Nov. 1, every inmate was issued a cloth mask.”
The policies — from allowing inmates to decide for themselves whether they want to wear masks, or just not providing them at all — are at odds with guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It is also at odds with Gov. Jared Polis’s statewide mask mandate.
“All correctional facilities should provide masks to inmates at no additional cost and assure they are worn to protect the health of everyone within these facilities,” said a spokeswoman at the Colorado State Joint Information Center. “All correctional facilities should be following Colorado’s indoor mask order.”
Candra Mack’s husband, Iyan Murray, is in the El Paso County Jail with COVID-19. Mack said he’s been given cough syrup and now has a mask, but only after Mack complained in the local newspaper. She said he was bunking with 80 people and didn’t know where he got it.
Mack said Murray still isn’t isolated. He is in jail on pending criminal charges and hasn’t been granted a bond.
“I’m concerned about him being all right,” she said. “He’s strong and he’s a fighter … but isn’t he innocent until he’s proven guilty?”
In Garfield County, which had 93 inmates on Thursday, sheriff’s spokesman Walt Stowe said, “masks are available if they choose to wear a mask.”
Stowe said a medical professional screens incoming inmates for “signs of symptoms” -- but not everyone is given a COVID-19 test. If they have any symptoms upon entry, or while inside, the inmate has to wear a mask.
Studies have shown that people tested shortly after becoming infected can get a false negative result, and later become contagious with the virus.
The lack of uniform safety requirements for jails comes as hospital ICUs around the state are brimming with people sick with COVID-19. In Mesa County, just down I-70 from Garfield, officials on Thursday announced there were no more ICU beds available.
Jails face legal action over inmate safety
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has filed a number of lawsuits against correctional facilities for failing to protect medically vulnerable inmates inside. And since the start of the pandemic, judges have issued multiple orders aimed at requiring correctional facilities to step up safety measures for inmates.
One of those was on behalf of Weld County inmates against Sheriff Steve Reams.
The inmates claimed the sheriff wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough in the spring. A federal judge in May issued a 39-page order requiring Reams to protect vulnerable inmates, including providing them with single cells and space to socially distance from the regular population, and monitor them for signs of illness.
Weld County Sheriff spokesman Joe Moylan said that all inmates now receive masks and are required to wear them.
Another ACLU lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections yielded a consent decree last week. Corrections officials agreed to, among other things, furnish two free masks a week to all inmates in Colorado prisons.
“The jails need to be even more vigilant because once it spreads inside the jail, it will spread to the staff and the staff will bring that back to the community,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU’s legal director. “I know there are people who wonder why they should care about jails … but when it comes to contagious disease like this, the jails aren’t separate from the community.”
This story has been updated to reflect inaccurate information initially provided by Denver County. Denver inmates are not required to wear masks.