By Karen Morfitt

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– Following a lawsuit by the ACLU, the El Paso County Jail will be required to make changes that better protect inmates and staff from COVID-19. The lawsuit filed in early December 2020 came after the facility reported one of the state’s largest outbreaks: reporting that 849 of their 1,200 inmates had tested positive for coronavirus.

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ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein says it prompted their investigation and subsequent contact with dozens of inmates.

“We learned that the sheriff not only failed to provide masks until this massive outbreak, but he had actually prohibited inmates from using masks in their housing units,” he said.

They filed suit, alleging a lack of protection for both inmates and staff, and the result is an agreement that requires the El Paso County Sheriff to follow more than a dozen safety provisions.

They include providing not one but two cloth masks to inmates, and requiring everyone in the facility to wear one. In addition, sheriff’s deputies must take inmate temperatures twice a day and any inmate who tests positive must be separated from those who don’t.

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Silverstein says perhaps the most important addition is for those who do get sick.

“They were not doing daily monitoring of symptoms, not taking vitals, and of course that seemed to us to be extremely dangerous and the jail could have lost someone easily,” he said.

El Paso County is now the second county order to follow similar guidelines, cases that Silverstein and the ACLU believe highlight a much larger issue.

“When it comes to a public health crisis with a contagious disease, the jails are just as much a part of the community as the nursing homes, as every part of the community. The virus doesn’t stop at cell doors either going in or coming out.”

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A spokesperson for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement in response to the agreement, “It is the policy of the Sheriff’s Office not to comment on pending litigation. However, we can say since the beginning of this pandemic we have taken, and will continue to take, appropriate steps to protect inmates in the El Paso County Jail from COVID-19. The Sheriff’s Office has continuously consulted with El Paso County Public Health, other County leadership, and the Colorado Department of Public Health in evaluating and determining our COVID-19 response. As this pandemic continues to evolve, the Sheriff’s Office will continue to work diligently in collaboration with these partners, as we have since the onset of this pandemic. It’s important to remember the jail populations represents a unique and fluid subpopulation of El Paso County and beyond. Outbreaks such as the one we saw are a reflection of the larger burden of disease in the community.”

Karen Morfitt