Colorado Corrections Director says solitary confinement is “overused” & urges reforms

Solitary confinement is “overused, misused, and abused” to the detriment of prisoners’ mental health and public safety, according to Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee last month, Raemisch said solitary confinement has been “incredibly over-used” to punish inmates for relatively minor infractions.

“Administrative segregation is used…to allow an institution to run more efficiently. It suspends the problem at best but multiplies it at its worst. And so, it does run more efficiently until you let that person out of there,” said Raemisch, who pointed out that 34% of the prison population in Colorado suffer from mental health problems and 70% have some type of drug and/or alcohol problem. “If you haven’t addressed what got him in there to begin with, you’ve done nothing, and that’s the problem with the mentally ill. And what I struggle with and what we’re trying to change in Colorado – and we’re making great progress – is how you can hold someone accountable if they don’t understand the rule they broke to begin with? It’s no-win situation.”

He pointed out that many inmates held in solitary confinement have pre-existing mental health problems or developmental disabilities, and the harsh conditions in segregation – spending 23 hours a day in a dark, windowless room – only exacerbate the inmates’ mental illnesses – something Raemisch understands first-hand.

“Because I sat in that cell for over 20 hours, my response is this is no way to treat an American,” said Raemisch, who described his brief voluntary stay in solitary as “eye-opening”. “It’s not a way the state should be treating someone. It’s not a way this nation should be treating someone. And internationally, it’s not a way to be treating someone.”

And even if the inmate does not have pre-existing mental illness, Raemisch believed that prolonged stays in solitary confinement can create mental health problems. That, in turn, creates a public safety problem because “97% all of our inmates return back to the community, and out of those 97% some of them have been in administrative segregation,” Raemisch noted.

“If our goal is to decrease the number of victims inside prison, and outside prison…then we must rethink how we use Administrative Segregation, especially when it comes to the mentally ill,” according to Raemisch’s written testimony. He insisted that solitary confinement should be used only to hold a “small number” of inmates who pose a serious and immediate danger to themselves and others.

Recent solitary confinement reforms in Colorado

Since succeeding Tom Clements, who was assassinated last year by a parolee released directly from solitary confinement to the community, Raemisch has been able to reform his department’s policies on segregation and drastically reduce the number of inmates held in isolation. Some of the results include:

  • cutting the number of inmates in solitary by 60%, from 1,451 in 2011 to 597 in January 2014, by reviewing and releasing those who do belong in segregation;
  • lowering the number of mentally ill inmates held in segregation from 50 in 2013 to 4 in January 2014;
  • and dropping the number of inmates released directly from solitary confinement to the community from 140 inmates in 2012 to 2 in 2014.

It’s worth noting that Colorado is saving $15,332 per year per prisoner removed from segregation housing, which is 51% more expensive than housing inmates in the prisons’ general population.

Furthermore, Raemisch reported that despite the reductions of inmates in segregation, the prison system “did not see an immediate increase in assaults.”

“We believe as we track this further, our institutions will actually be safer,” he wrote.

Proposed reforms

Notwithstanding the impressive results achieved so far, Raemisch told lawmakers that Colorado will continue to reform its solitary confinement practices.

One proposed overhaul is to allow inmates in segregation to earn more time out of their cells.

“For some reason, we seem to think that for admin seg, someone is in a cell 23 hours a day. Who defines that?” asked Raemisch. “Why isn’t it 22 hours a day? How about 20 hours a day? How about 18 hours a day or they start at 23 and work their way down to 10?”

Giving inmates more time out of cell would improve conditions of solitary confinement.

“What we’re going to end up in Colorado is that only the extreme violent – and that’s a small handful of all we’re talking about – are going to be those that remain in administrative segregation. But even then, that doesn’t mean we give up on them. It means we continue to find a solution to these problems,” said Raemisch.

Another major overhaul proposed is to give death row inmates in Colorado, who are automatically held in solitary confinement until execution, more time out of cell as well.

Raemisch pointed out that there have been many cases like Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years in solitary in Louisiana’s death row before he was exonerated and released in 2012 – an experience that Thibodeaux described as “painful and cruel”.

“It’s been automatic through most part that someone on death row is going to stay in administrative segregation until they’re put to death. As we know, a person spends many years and some are found innocent and released. And we’re going to be changing our policy on that and giving them the opportunity to get outside of their cells,” said Raemisch.

Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Safety Foundation, a conservative think tank, proposed other reforms that states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons can adopt to limit the use and harmful impacts of solitary confinement.

The reforms outlined by Levin include:

  • allowing reading materials for inmates in solitary confinement;
  • training prison personnel on deescalation techniques and how to handle inmates with mental illness or developmental disabilities;
  • creating separate “mission” housings for inmates who are vulnerable to violence in the general population, like former police officers, the mentally ill, and inmates who are leaving a gang. “Unfortunately, those individuals often end up in the same 23-hour a day cell as those who are being punished for disciplinary violations when we know these smaller housing communities with a better staff-inmate ratio can address that issue”, said Levin.
  • reducing overcrowding in federal and state prisons. “When you have inmates piled in day rooms with inadequate staff ratio, that makes it more difficult to defuse the very tensions that often lead to placement in solitary confinement,” he said.

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