Denver’s jail population is drastically shrinking, but that alone can’t stop deputies and inmates from getting coronavirus

As multiple departments struggle to contain the virus, inmates are freed early and must contend with life on the outside amid a pandemic.
9 min. read
Inside Denver’s downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Timothy Jackson grew leery every time one of his fellow inmates coughed. He and everyone else at Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center knew what was happening on the outside. They watched Fox31 for local coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and CNN for national reports.

"We were glued to the news," Jackson said on the phone from his sister's house in Denver. She let him live there after being released from jail early as part of the Hancock administration's strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

But before his sister agreed to let him stay, Jackson spent a night at the Crossroads Shelter on Brighton Boulevard with a whole bunch of strangers in close quarters.

"You got a lot of guys in that coughing and, you know, if you don't have no (personal protective equipment), you're pretty much on your own," Jackson said. "When you're released, you're on your own."

The Hancock administration is shrinking the inmate population at city jails, which now house a historically low number of people.

Between March 1 and April 15, the average daily number of inmates at the detention center and Denver County Jail fell by about 41 percent, or 749 people, according to data from the Denver Sheriff Department and internal government emails obtained by Denverite. The department counted 1,057 people in custody as of April 15.

Judges and prosecutors give preference to inmates who are over 60, pregnant, have health problems that make COVID-19 riskier, have less than 60 days remaining on their sentence, have inexpensive bonds and those who are on "work-release" -- leaving jail to work and eventually returning -- according to the Office of the Denver District Attorney.

While Denver's judicial branch decides who gets to leave jail early, it works with sheriff's deputies and police to determine eligibility.

"We are reviewing our jail population on a daily basis and are working with these partners to determine release eligibility; each situation is unique and reviewed individually," said Daria Serna, a spokesperson for the sheriff's department, in an email. "Additionally, we continue to work closely with our community resource partners to ensure those being released and who have a need to be connected to reentry services are receiving that opportunity when identified."

But prosecutors are not dismissing charges because of COVID-19, said Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the DA's office.

Despite the successful population decrease, the virus is spreading among inmates and deputies.

Strategies to curb COVID-19 are inadequate, according to recently released inmates and the local sheriff's deputy union.

As of April 13, 21 inmates in Denver's jails had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the city's joint information center, with 56 more isolated.

Sixty-four members of the Department of Public Safety, which includes the sheriff's deputies, police officers, firefighters and 911 workers, had tested positive as of April 16 (30 recovered). But the city will not make the breakdown public. Michael Britton, vice president of the Denver's Fraternal Order of Police sheriff's union, said the numbers for deputies are now in the 20s.

Deputies working in the jail were short on protective masks and coveralls just like other city departments, Britton said. When they did receive masks, Britton said the straps were brittle and often broke. It doesn't bode well for deputies who breakup fights, get bit, and worry about taking the virus home to their families.

"I understand this is all new for everyone. I get that," Britton said. "What I don't get is how come we're not properly equipping officers inside the jail. If you work inside the jail, there is really no such thing as social distance."

Jackson, the recently released inmate, said things aren't any better from where he stands. Deputies removed two people from his jail pod because of COVID-19, he said, but that's when protective measures stopped.

"They had two guys tested, and then about three days later they came back, had to put on gloves, put on a mask and then took them and quarantined them," he said. "They just took those two guys out and we're like, man, so what are we supposed to do? They've been here for a couple of days, coughing, and the deputies didn't do nothing, which was not good."

Alycia Samuelson had a different experience in her women-only pod. Her fellow inmate tested positive for COVID0-19. After Samuelson's voice went hoarse, deputies removed her from her pod and a nurse tested her for the virus, she told Denverite. The results were negative, and she returned the next day.

"The deputies and counselors went above and beyond the call," Samuelson said. They showed "a lot of compassion."

She watched her pod shrink from 22 inmates to five because of early releases, of which she was one. However, her pod was consolidated with others -- a move she questioned because of physical distancing guidelines.

Alycia Samuelson sits in the sober living house where she's staying in Aurora. April 17, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Tyler Crowley stands near the apartment where he's staying in Englewood. April 17, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Tyler Crowley said he was an inmate at the detention center starting in mid-March and was freed instead of being sent to state prison as expected. He was not screened for COVID-19 before entering the general population, he said, though someone took his temperature four times in two weeks.

Crowley estimated seeing gloves on just four deputies during his stay.

"They really wasn't trying to keep too many people in there because if it did spread, there wasn't nothing they can do," Crowley said. "They can't really care for people the way they want to."

Britton said a Plexiglas barrier now separates inmates from employees at intake, but that it was just installed this week. New inmates see a nurse about 15 minutes after arriving, he said. Anyone suspected of having the virus now gets isolated from the jail's population, according to city officials, and Denver Health determines whether they need to be tested.

Some people with COVID-19 don't show symptoms, however. And until April 7, people on work-release were still allowed to leave the jail for work and return afterward. Britton said oversights like these are "a matter of not having any clear-cut plan" and that deputies operating without direction.

"What's our job? Care and custody," Britton said. "But if we're doing the wrong thing and not the right thing for the right reasons, then our functionality inside that jail is skewed."

The sheriff's department says it has a plan. Denver's interim director of public safety ordered them to create one at the beginning of March.

"The Sheriff Department submitted a plan and have utilized memos and directives to update the plan as it is being implemented," said city spokeswoman Erika R. Martinez via email. "It's important to mention that the creation of operational directives during the COVID-19 pandemic is a team effort" between Denver Health and city and federal health officials, she said.

So you get released from jail into the public during a pandemic. Now what? Some know. Some don't.

Since the outbreak, 13 inmates who tested positive have been released. The sheriff's department and public health officials sent them off with an isolation order, a face mask and information on where to find resources, Martinez said via email.

If former inmates diagnosed with the virus are experiencing homelessness -- and there are a lot of them -- the city and nonprofit partners "provide transportation to appropriate housing," Martinez said. Otherwise, some ex-inmates get bus passes at a time when public health officials are discouraging public transportation.

City officials provide emergency housing vouchers to people who need them, Martinez said. Some freed inmates receive vouchers to a hotel or halfway house, even if they're not sick.

Samuelson, the woman released early from jail after being tested, mostly praised the city government's response. Denver helped keep her healthy and placed her at a recovery center to help her stay sober -- away from methamphetamine -- with a roof overhead.

"It was all because of the support a Denver county," she said. "Like, they really, really worked hard to help me. I don't ever see me going back."

But others, like Jackson, ended up at a shelter in close quarters with people who may or may not have been infected. After they were released, Jackson and Crowley felt dismissed given the pandemic around them.

"From what we're understanding, people are often left to their own devices once they are released," said Lisa Calderón, who ran a nonprofit serving ex-offenders for 10 years before the city ended its contract. "And what we'd like to see is a much more proactive approach that isn't just about relinquishing responsibility when people are done with serving their time, but to make sure that public safety extends to the community that they are released to."

Calderón wants to see a shift in post-jail assistance -- one that focuses less on placing people in jobs and more on containing the virus. Both Jackson and Crowley said they've been looking for jobs since they got out. Jackson planned to hit a hub for day laborers to earn some income.

"It is important to understand that this has been a very fast-moving situation, and realistically we have not been able to assist every person to the full extent of what they would have liked or been able to talk to every individual personally," Martinez said. "Each day brings a new challenge, and the Denver Sheriff Department is always looking for new community partnerships to help with safe housing for those being released from jail."

Servicios de la Raza has the city's main contract for post-jail assistance. The group is still placing people at jobs, or at least trying, said executive director Rudy Gonzales. Plenty of jobs in construction like asbestos removal and traffic control are still available, he said, because they are deemed "essential" by the city and state government.

Things have changed at Servicios de la Raza, but not its basic mission. He pointed Denverite to the nonprofit's COVID-19 resources page on its website.

"We're specifically working to employ our ex-offenders," Gonzales said. "We had a slowdown in the beginning and now it's picked. We're really active, specifically in the city and county jail."

As of Friday afternoon, 85 people had died from COVID-19 in Denver out of a known 1,671 positive cases -- 80 more than the previous day.

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