ACLU Trying To Force Polis’ Hand On Dealing With COVID-19 In Prisons

December 2, 2020
The Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City is one of the first prisons in the country to experiment with virtual reality for reentry.The Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City is one of the first prisons in the country to experiment with virtual reality for reentry.Meredith Turk/CPR News
A view through the fences at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has asked for a temporary restraining order against Gov. Jared Polis in hopes that a judge will force him to reduce prison populations due to severe COVID-19 outbreaks across the state.

Eleven prisoners have died from symptoms of COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic — including four just this week, according to the Department of Corrections. More than 1800 prisoners have active infections — that’s around one in eight inmates — and more than 200 staffers are out sick.

“This is saying, ‘judge this is really urgent, we need to get on this,’” said ACLU’s lawyer Mark Silverstein. “The lawsuit is based on the risk of the prisoners from contracting COVID-19. The social distancing is what’s needed and can’t be provided with the current populations and the current facilities.”

A spokesman for Polis said the governor wasn’t going to comment on a pending lawsuit. Earlier this week, Polis told reporters that “there was no way” prisoners would get a vaccine before “people who haven’t committed any crimes. That’s obvious.”

Lawyers for the governor will have to respond within a few days, likely, in court.

This isn’t the first tangle the ACLU has had with the Polis administration regarding prisoners during the pandemic. 

Advocacy lawyers initially sued both the governor and the Colorado Department of Corrections for failing to take enough precautions around vulnerable populations inside prisons. That concluded with a consent decree in November that, among other things, requires the DOC to furnish fresh masks to inmates weekly and clean the facilities. 

The lawsuit against Polis continued because lawyers want him to use his powers as governor to swiftly reduce populations, arguably making prisons safer for those who remain inside. Polis initially issued an executive order that allowed for some early releases of people whose parole eligibility dates were coming up but he did not renew that order when it expired in the late spring.

The number of people serving time in Colorado prisons is actually at an all-time low since the start of the pandemic; it has lately hovered at about 16,500 people. In March, more than 19,000 people were incarcerated.

“That’s still not enough to be safe inside, apparently,” Silverstein said.

Mark Blackford has been advocating for the release of his close friend John Peckham for years. Blackford and Peckham worked together in IT before Peckham fell upon some financial problems after his parents died and he “made some stupid mistakes,” Blackford said. 

Peckham was convicted in 2015 on several theft and embezzlement charges and is serving time at Arrowhead Correctional Facility in Cañon City.

The 55-year-old has breathing problems and Blackford said on Wednesday he believes Peckham could have COVID-19 now because he’s been sick for several days. Because he is serving time for a non-violent offense and will hit a parole eligibility date in 2023, Blackford thinks he should be considered for an early release by Polis.

“I’ve been writing the CDOC and trying to find a way for him,” Blackford said. “He poses no threat, he has support from me and his sister … We had it all planned out and it has not worked out.”