Aurora lawmakers approve resolution asking for jails, courts to do more to avoid COVID-19 spread

Inmates and officials at the Arapahoe County Detention Center wait on a door to open giving them access to a hallway of the facility, Sept. 19, 2019.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Jail inmates are often forgotten by policy makers, Aurora City Councilman Curtis Gardner said Monday night. That’s why he sponsored a resolution urging regional detention centers and court systems to take more steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The measure, which isn’t legally binding, passed unanimously. 

The resolution encourages detention centers holding Aurora inmates to take actions such as publicly disclosing how many novel coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the facility, examine people for symptoms of the virus before they enter the facilities, increase the number of telephone or video visitation minutes available to inmates, and keep families of inmates informed about actions, like quarantines, caused by the pandemic. 

Detention facilities are also asked to “deploy creative solutions to continue providing recidivism reducing programs and religious worship in prison, such as smaller settings where individuals can maintain proper social distancing protocols” and “allow for earned credits to temporarily accrue for in-prison jobs, increased cleaning duties and other productive activities, while ensuring adequate protections for those that wish to participate.”

No specific detention center is named in the resolution, but the measure does note that jails in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties house Aurora inmates. Additionally, Aurora operates its own jail and the U.S. Immigration Enforcement Agency contracts with GEO Group Inc. to run a detention center in north Aurora. 

“The purpose of this resolution is to make requests of facilities that house Aurora residents. Due to the realities of a detention center, an outbreak could be devastating so I want to make sure we look at ways to prevent the spread into or out of these places…as government leaders, it’s important for us to look at ways we can protect our residents from this pandemic and unfortunately, residents in a detention center can sometimes be forgotten…any interpretation this is intended to target one facility is a mischaracterization…,” Gardner told the Sentinel prior to the vote.

During the meeting Gardner acknowledged that advocating for inmates may be controversial, but believes the resolution is armed with reasonable asks of the criminal justice system.

“I think it’s possible to advocate for vulnerable populations while upholding the law,” he said, adding that taking additional measures in courts and jails helps to protect staff in detention centers and courts and the general public.

In court systems, the resolution asks for discontinuing pre-trial detention when possible, utilizing more incarceration alternatives, expediting parole decisions, and reducing the frequency of in-person check-ins. 

An amendment, sponsored by Councilmember Juan Marcano, added wording in the resolution that encourages courts to discontinue pre-trial detention for “civil offenses” specifically. That would apply to most immigration offenses, Mayor Mike Coffman pointed out.

Council members Gardner, Dave Gruber and Francoise Bergan voted against adding that wording.

The resolution also asks for courts to “increase the use of existing elderly and compassionate release mechanisms, so that those who can safely be placed in home confinement or supervised release may serve their time in a safer and more supportive environment.”

The city council conducted the city council meeting via Zoom, a video-chatting application, in an effort to limit potential spread of the novel coronavirus.

City Manager Jim Twombly asked the council to extend the disaster declaration to April 26. City council voted unanimously to do so.