COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Colorado Springs mother is asking for answers after her son and hundreds of other prisoners as well as dozens of staffers in the El Paso County Jail have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Jamie Fain’s son, James Hunter Gantt, has been awaiting trial on drug charges for six months. He’s had his court date moved three times due to the effects COVID-19 has had on the courts. The majority of the people being held in the El Paso jail have not yet been convicted of a crime and are instead but waiting for their trials.
Because of the pandemic, visitors are not allowed in the jail itself and can only talk to the prisoners over the phone or via video conference.
Fain says her son tested positive for the virus several days ago and she had to pay $7 for a nurse to visit him as well as for the aspirin and cough syrup he was prescribed.
“My son is having a really hard time. He’s running a fever, he’s got sweats, hallucinations at night, coughing,” Fain said. “These are patients now, not just inmates, patients with COVID-19 and we should be giving them medication.”
Fain has spent days speaking with other inmates about the conditions and calling the sheriff’s office, the health department, the ACLU, local representatives and more, trying to get answers.
“I said to the deputy, ‘Is my son going to die in there? And if he does, I’m not going to tolerate this. Can he get to somebody?’ And I don’t believe he can get somebody,” she said.
At its peak on Sunday, 859 prisoners and 66 staffers had tested positive for COVID-19. That number has since decreased to 148 prisoners and 19 staffers. The sheriff’s office says the prisoners who had previously tested positive had been retested in addition to having fulfilled the required quarantine time frame, resulting in the lower numbers.
Denver7 also learned Thursday that all prisoners were provided a face mask for the first time on Nov. 1. Those classified as Special Population have not received masks.
In a statement to Denver7, the sheriff’s office said from July 24 on, it was only providing masks to inmates being transported to court or up and down the hallways.
“I am really surprised to learn that the El Paso County Jail has not provided masks until just last week when evidence of the outbreak was overwhelming,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “I thought that the sheriff was being extremely reckless to not have provided masks until this outbreak was out of control.”
In June, the ACLU sent a letter to every sheriff’s office in Colorado outlining a federal court order issued for protecting inmates during the pandemic. The court order stems from a May ruling against the Weld County Sheriff’s Office over its treatment of inmates during the pandemic.
He’s worried about the outbreak spreading beyond the prison population and into the community as staffers commute to and from work.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the El Paso County Health Department told Denver7 in a statement that part of the reason masks were not given to prisoners at first had to do with the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.
Another issue is that the masks cannot have any metal in them, such as the metal nose guards, since it is considered contraband in the jail.
“Regarding the mask mandate, it is our understanding that this is not in violation of that mandate. This is because the jail serves as residential quarters for the inmates, and the mandate does not include any language requiring a mask be worn in a residence. Inmates did wear masks any time they were outside of their residential quarters,” Michelle Hewitt, from the county’s health department, wrote.
The statement went on to say that the health department has conducted numerous site visits to evaluate safety and mitigation measures that are in place.
“The CDC recommendations for inmate care in any detention facility is followed by our Jail staff,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote in its statement.
It says it is intensifying cleaning and disinfection efforts throughout the facility, creating ways to reinforce hygiene practices and performing regular screenings.
Denver7 also reached out to Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn for a statement on the outbreak in the jail.
“During the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic, my office has been in close contact with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and other state and local agencies. In collaboration with the EPC Health Department and CDPHE, the EPCSO has adhered to best practice recommendations and CDC guidelines during these unprecedented times. Additionally, they have implemented strategic mask-wearing policies, employed daily health monitoring practices, and upgraded their air filtration systems to better protect those in custody and employed with EPCSO.”
Silverstein would like to see universal testing in all jails, everyone wearing masks and social distancing as well as reduced jail populations.
“This outbreak at the El Paso County Jail really makes it imperative that all sheriffs in the state take a look at their jail populations,” Silverstein said.
As for Fain, she just wants answers as to how this could happen and what’s being done to keep prisoners safe.
“I want an explanation of why we were being told it was being taken care of when it wasn’t, and somebody needs to be held accountable,” Fain said.