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Decarceration in Colorado

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Editor's note: The following have been submitted by Indy readers, unedited, un-fact-checked, and presented in whole. Join the conversation in the comment section below, or via email to letters@csindy.com.

An open letter to El Paso County Sheriff (Bill Elder), Colorado Springs Chief of Police (Vince Niski), 4th Judicial District Attorney (Dan May), and 4th Judicial District Courts (Chief Judge William Bain).

We are writing with concern for those incarcerated in El Paso County during COVID-19. We understand that significant changes have already taken place with regard to protecting the lives of those incarcerated, and we appreciate the collaborative efforts between offices that have already happened to protect those most vulnerable in our community. We understand that Sheriff Bill Elder and Chief Judge William Bain have used their leadership to advance the safety of those incarcerated (and thus the safety of the public at large) by advocating for a reduced jail population and a safer court system.

That said, we the undersigned ask for transparency about these measures in addition to further steps with this work. We want to know how the measures below are currently implemented, and what plans are for continuing their implementation.

The death of El Paso County Deputy Jeff Hopkins from COVID-19 complications highlights the severity of COVID-19, particularly in correctional facilities. Seven out of 11 employees working for the Sheriff who have contracted COVID-19 worked at El Paso County jail. Hopkins was among three intake and release employees at the jail who contracted the disease, further highlighting how dangerous it is to continue admission into the jail. We recognize the efforts of the Sheriff's Office, which has already greatly reduced the jail population. Yet, the limited public information found in The Gazette reports that inmates are not provided masks or hand sanitizer. The jail only has the space to isolate inmates for seven days, yet the CDC states that the time from virus exposure to symptom onset can be up to 14 days. The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender states: "We continue to be concerned about the limited amount of testing at the jail. We have had clients tell their attorneys that they are in a cell with others that are sick and that only some people are being quarantined."

With all of this in mind, we ask for further measures to protect those incarcerated and greater transparency to the public about what these measures are. We ask that you make transparent the policies to reduce the jail population and arrests, to improve the medical care of those incarcerated, and to increase transparency with the public as to how these practices will carry on into the future beyond COVID-19.



We are asking for the cooperation between the El Paso County Sheriff, Colorado Springs Chief of Police, 4th Judicial District Attorney, and 4th Judicial District Courts to implement the following or to inform us of how the following have already been implemented:

1. Provide free basic necessities for incarcerated people, correctional staff, and jail visitors to protect themselves, including masks, soap, disinfectants, and supplies from the commissary. Lockdown as a singular solution is not a sufficient preventative measure to infection, as COVID-19
can still travel through AC and heating units and because lockdown drastically deteriorates the health (mental and physical) of inmates. Ensure that incarcerated people who are quarantined/locked down have access to adequate food and free, life-saving communication with family/friends outside. All medical care should be free and easily accessible by any incarcerated person. Medical care and sanitary precautions should be vetted by healthcare professionals. If overcrowding or budget concerns do not allow these necessities to be met, the facility population should be reduced so CDC standards can be met.

2. Reduce population in jails: Expedite commutations and releases for incarcerated people 50+ years, those who are pregnant, and/or with underlying medical issues. Release those with medical conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19, those who are living with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, asthma, Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis, and cancer.
Accelerate release to parole of those already found suitable for parole by the Parole Board. Release
first time offenders and agree to the early release of anyone within 6 months of their release date, all people held on probation and parole technical violation detainers or sentences, people held pretrial, and people held for offenses that would not result in detention if they were arrested today. Cease any collaboration with ICE for immigration enforcement.

3. Reduce admission into jails: Expand the list of "non-jailable" offenses, and dramatically reduce the number of arrests. Release people on Personal Recognisance rather than admit them to jail.
Vacate all "bench warrants" (warrants for unpaid court fines/fees and for failure to appear for hearings). End quality of life policing, which includes criminalizing those experiencing homelessness, sex workers, and others.

4. Resist the use of probation and parole surveillance as an alternative to jail. This would reduce the number of people subject to the conditions of probation and parole, which often contradict social distancing guidelines (i.e. required in-person meetings with parole or probation officers). Reduce GPS/electronic monitoring. Electronic monitoring requires correctional staff to install and maintain devices, which is impossible to do while social distancing. Because these devices require people to request permission to go somewhere, electronic monitoring will restrict people from seeking appropriate medical treatment. Provide alternatives to in-person check-in such as phone or video.



5. Provide necessary communication: There should be unlimited, free phone calls so that families can maintain contact while visitation is suspended. Facilities that do not have video calling systems could temporarily refit the visiting rooms to support free video calling options with publicly
available services like Zoom and Skype. These services can often be installed quickly without the involvement and costs of the prison telephone industry (see example here).

6. Utilize social services and other mechanisms to provide transportation and housing upon release to those who need it.

7. Make all the above policies and responses to the COVID-19 crisis transparent to the public and those incarcerated. Publicize a plan of how you will implement all of the above. Additionally, make transparent how these policies will continue beyond COVID-19.

We call on you to act immediately on these demands for the safety of all Coloradans.

Signed:
Citizens Project, Colorado College Prison Project, Colorado Freedom Fund, Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Colorado No More Prisons, Colorado Springs Showing Up for Racial Justice, Concerned Clergy of Colorado Springs, Empowerment Solidarity Network, Justice
for De'Von Editorial Board, NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Area Conference, Relevant
World Christian Cultural Center, Sunrise Movement Colorado Springs, Vista Grande Community Church, Paul Adler- Assistant Professor US History, History Department, Colorado College, Rosalee Bayer, Charlotte Blum, Zac Chapman, Joyce Cheney, Mona Megumi Cousino, Chineta
Davis, Bruce Gallatin, Rev. Dr. Jonathan Hall, Eloise Kelly, Jess Keniston, Emma Kerr, Jerima King,
Katie Lawrie, Rev. Promise Lee, Carol Neel- Professor of History, History Department, Colorado College, Eric Popkin- Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Colorado College, Rev. Dr. Nori Rost, Nat Stein, Victoria Stone, Janet Tanner, Rev. Deborah Tinsley, Rev.
Clare Twomey, Harry Volker, Deb Walker, Anna Wermuth, Theresa Westphal, Sue Wilson

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