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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

'I Don't Want To Die In Prison,' Writes One Inmate During Colorado Outbreak

Jada Lee
Justin Lee's wife says he has tested positive for COVID-19 while serving a 12-month sentence at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

Jada Lee’s husband Justin, an inmate at a large prison in northeastern Colorado, has been sending her letters, neatly handwritten on lined notebook paper, during the pandemic because access to the shared phones has been restricted.

But on Monday, Lee said she got a phone call from him. Justin was allowed to call because, she said, he tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I didn’t even recognize him,” she said. “(He had) a really raspy voice... He said that he was feeling really achy, not being able to breathe. He hasn’t been throwing up but he hasn’t been able to hold food down so he hasn’t been eating.”


Justin Lee is serving 12 months for theft at the Sterling Correctional Facility. According to state data out of the nearly 2,500 inmates at Sterling, 241 have now tested positive for COVID-19, up from just eight last week. Eleven staff members have also tested positive. Sterling now houses one of the highest numbers of infected people at any one facility in Colorado, including nursing homes and meat packing facilities, according to state records.

Coronavirus cases exist at facilities in both Weld and Arapahoe counties, but this is the largest reported outbreak at a jail or prison in the state, by far. 

Jada Lee said both she and her husband thought he would eventually get sick. In Justin’s letters, written before he got his test results back, he worried repeatedly about dying in prison.

“I am a non-violent offender who took responsibility for the crimes that I have done,” he wrote. “I just don’t want to keep being punished and worrying if I’m going to get sick and die in prison... it’s even worse to be a black male in the world but to be a black male in prison in this time is harder than you think.” 

In one letter, before he was moved to a quarantined pod with other sick people, Justin wrote that inmates were not getting their temperatures taken, were not allowed to shower often, and that guards were wearing masks but no gloves and nothing covering their uniforms when they would serve inmates their meals. 

The Department of Corrections (DOC) says that the facility is taking proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus: all inmates have been restricted to their cells since April 14, the facility is being cleaned multiple times a day and everyone has to wear at least a cloth mask. Inmates on the east side of the facility, the location of the outbreak, are having their temperatures checked twice daily. All inmates are getting two bars of soap per week along with free stamps and envelopes.

A DOC spokesperson did not know if staff have access to gloves, was unable to describe the inmates’ living conditions and did not provide details on plans for additional testing. 

Kim White's son Dustin, who she says has a neurological disorder, is an inmate. She said he called her on Monday to tell her he had tested positive. Since then, White says her son has developed pain while breathing and lost his sense of smell and taste.

"I want all the people in there, and I'm not just speaking for my son, I want all of them to get medical care in there," White said. "I don't think that Sterling was ready for this big outbreak, obviously a lot of people weren't."

Jada Lee does not know when her husband will be able to call her again or how to get more information about his condition.

“I don’t know what to do,” Lee said. “I’m just waiting and praying on it. Hopefully everything will be okay... I mean, what can I do? I can’t get him out of jail.” 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent number of infected inmates.

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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