By Logan Smith

(CBS4) — The American Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday a resolution reached between its attorneys and those representing the Weld County Sheriff that could result in intensified protections for current and incoming inmates at the county’s jail.

Both sides have asked to enter a consent decree, a legally binding agreement, in the federal court case.

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“We can no longer ignore the role that jails play in this pandemic,” stated ACLU Cooperating Attorney Dan Williams of Hutchinson Black and Cook, LLC., in a press release. “This proposed consent decree will save lives.”

A spokesperson for the Weld County Commissioners deferred comment to Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams. Sheriff Reams, through a spokesman, did not comment Tuesday on the decision.

Weld County Jail (credit: CBS)

The ACLU took legal action in April as the number of positive test results for Covid-19 climbed at the jail. The facility qualified for “outbreak” status as determined by the state health department on April 1st, shortly after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Weld County, like several other county jails, released a number of people incarcerated for “lesser” crimes in order to increase the facility’s ability to socially distance its population. Weld County judges also ordered the early release of some criminals at the facility.

On April 15th, Weld County confirmed it had nine COVID-19 cases among those incarcerated and 16 cases among deputies.

However, three of those nine who were released early later tested posted.

One of them died. He passed away two days after his release. A sheriff’s department spokesperson said the jail received no reports of him exhibiting symptoms while in jail.

The ACLU filed an injunction to force protections at the jail on April 10th. Former inmates of the jail joined in the effort.

“I’m at extremely high risk being at 60-years-old,” said former inmate Tom Lewis said via video conference. “We’re incarcerated in cells, at the beginning of the virus, where six men were to a cell. By the time I had left we were at three men, which still doesn’t allow any social distancing.”

Tom Lewis (credit: CBS)

“Weld County’s foot-dragging through March led to its jail being the first one in Colorado to have an outbreak,” said the ACLU’s Williams said at that time. “Weld County’s lawyer argued that the judge should excuse the Sheriff’s failure to take COVID-19 more seriously because there had ‘only been one death.’ Today’s order makes clear that when it comes to COVID-19, half measures don’t cut it. Jails need to take aggressive measures to keep medically vulnerable people safe.”

A judge ruled in mid-May to require Weld County protect “medically vulnerable” members of the jail population.

The first day of June, Weld County said all inmates would receive Covid-19 tests. The number of inmates with positive results reached 23 a week later.

(credit: CBS)

Weld County judges joined the effort in reducing the jail population and ruled for the early release of some criminals.

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One man who was released early, Christopher Vecchiarelli, was arrested a month after his release for a strangulation and assault of a woman.

At that time, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke told CBS4 that Vecchiarelli’s release was an example of jail protections taken too far.

“From the beginning of this pandemic,” Rourke said in a statement, “we’ve said that public safety and victim safety will remain at the top of our priority list. It’s extremely frustrating to see that convicted criminals are being released back into our community, just to immediately re-offend, putting our community at risk. There ought to be COVID related policies that put public safety first. Not only is this reversing the hard work of law enforcement and prosecutors, but it’s a complete slap in the face and extremely disheartening to victims and their families who have already suffered a great deal emotionally and mentally.”

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In mid-May, Sheriff Reams spoke to CBS4 about the protocols taken in an attempt to corral the spread of the coronavirus.

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams. (credit: CBS)

But in Tuesday’s announcement of the planned consent decree, the ACLU called his actions a “failure to take adequate measures to protect people in his jail from COVID-19.”

In the ACLU’s words, the consent decree accomplishes the following:

  • Medically vulnerable persons are identified when they arrive at the jail, are afforded heightened protections including single-celling when possible, and regular medical monitoring
  • Measures are put in place to promote social distancing
  • Masks are distributed to all persons at the jail, and are required to be used
  • Persons held at the jail receive COVID-19 testing consistent with CDC guidelines
  • With only limited exceptions, through the end of the COVID-19 crisis, the jail does not accept persons charged with misdemeanors, municipal offenses, and petty offenses
  • The Sheriff will regularly advise police chiefs in Weld county to minimize custodial arrests and instead issue court summonses or personal recognizance bonds
  • The Sheriff will provide regular reports to the Chief Judge of the Weld County District Court, so that the court can undertake reviews to consider persons for release from the jail when feasible.

The proposed consent decree also calls for continued data sharing on jail populations and COVID-19 infections, per the ACLU.

As of Monday, data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website reflects 62 inmates and 22 staff members at the Weld County Jail have tested positive.

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Earlier, the ACLU also took aim at the protection of the state’s prison population. A similar agreement to Weld’s, reached with the Colorado Department of Corrections, was announced on November 13th.

Today, the Department of Corrections notified CBS4 that it has conducted over 95,000 tests during the course of the pandemic. The current DOC inmate population is 14,083, and there are currently 1,558 active inmate cases in the department. The CDOC employs 6,182 full time staff and currently has 207 active staff member positives.

“While the vast majority of inmates that have tested positive have been asymptomatic or have had very mild symptoms,” DOC spokesperson Annie Skinner stated in an email, “there have been 11 inmate deaths and no staff deaths. This week, four additional inmate deaths were reported.”

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(credit: ThinkStock)

The ACLU continues to pursue legal action against Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, whom it claims “violates the Colorado Constitution by failing to exercise his powers to safely reduce the prison population in the wake of the pandemic,” according to an ACLU statement.

Logan Smith