After the Murder of Tom Clements, Can Colorado's Prison System Rehabilitate Itself?

After the Murder of Tom Clements, Can Colorado's Prison System Rehabilitate Itself?

When Tom Clements accepted the job of executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections three years ago, he knew he was taking on an enormous challenge. Two particularly alarming sets of figures, trends that he believed to be more than casually related, caught his eye immediately.

One had to do with the excessive use of solitary confinement in order to isolate and punish the state's most troublesome prisoners. The other was the staggeringly high failure rate of parole.

Clements was a numbers guy. A native of the Show Me State, he valued empirical data more than gut instincts or sacred cows. A former parole officer who'd worked his way up to the top ranks of the Missouri state prison system, he was part of a growing reform movement in corrections: the promulgation of "evidence-based practices" by administrators whose idea of managing offenders is turning them into productive citizens again rather than simply moving them around. What mattered were hard numbers and programs with a track record of successful outcomes, and the data on the Colorado DOC wasn't good.

At the time that Clements arrived, Colorado had close to 1,500 inmates in solitary, or administrative segregation — which worked out to be about seven times the national average. Only a quarter of those in lockdown were there because of assaults on staff or other inmates; ad-seg had become the one-size-fits-all method of dealing with the mentally ill, suspected gang members, chronic screwups, or anyone else who appeared to be at risk of harm or of harming others. The average stay in isolation was nearly two years. Worse, 47 percent of the ad-seg prisoners completed their sentences in lockdown and were paroled directly to the street, with little or no preparation for the move from an eight-by-ten-foot cell to city life.

Forty-seven percent. As Clements saw it, that figure had a lot to do with some other dismal figures: the state's stubbornly high recidivism rate, hovering around 50 percent, and the steady return of thousands of parole violators to prison within months of their release.

The subject of Colorado's ad-seg problem figured prominently in the discussions of the executive-director job that Clements had with Governor John Hickenlooper. Without mentioning any names, Hickenlooper made passing reference to one prisoner, the son of a friend, who'd spent the bulk of his sentence in lockdown because of disciplinary problems. Clements took the position that the routine release of damaged, violent felons directly from isolation wasn't simply a parole problem, but a threat to public safety.

Reducing the use of solitary confinement became one of the new chief's top priorities. He pushed for more frequent and thorough reviews of who was in ad-seg and why, as well as initiatives to get prisoners out of isolation and into classes, drug treatment and mental-health programs before release. During his first two years on the job, the state's ad-seg population dropped by nearly 50 percent. Clements was encouraged by the progress, but hardly satisfied.

"It's only a matter of time," he told one top deputy, "until something goes bad."

His prediction proved to be all too accurate. But not even the new chief expected it to go quite as bad as it did, literally on his own doorstep. On the evening of March 19, 2013, Clements answered the doorbell at his Monument home and was confronted by a parole absconder named Evan Ebel — the same "son of a friend" Hickenlooper had mentioned during Clements's 2011 job interview. Released from ad-seg just seven weeks earlier, Ebel had already killed Nathan Leon, a pizza delivery driver, just to get his uniform. Ebel fatally shot Clements with a nine-millimeter handgun and fled, only to be killed himself two days later in a shootout with Texas authorities.

Almost eighteen months later, many questions about the death of Tom Clements remain unanswered. Authorities have described it as a gang-ordered assassination. Citing unnamed sources, the Denver Post has even suggested that it was a murder for hire, commissioned by a Saudi national who'd been denied a transfer out of a Colorado prison just days earlier. But aside from Stevie Vigil, the young woman who supplied Ebel with his gun, no charges have been filed against anyone in the case — and longtime friends of Ebel, citing letters and a recorded message he left behind, have insisted that the murder was an act of personal vengeance against a system that he despised.

Trying to make sense of a senseless killing has put considerable strain not only on investigators, but on DOC officials, as well, who have struggled to define what sort of "lesson," if any, can be gleaned from the tragedy. On one hand, Rick Raemisch, the current director, has expressed his determination to honor Clements's legacy, leading to a dramatic reduction in the number of mentally ill prisoners in ad-seg. But the shock and outrage of the slaying has also led to a major shakeup in the department's leadership team and retrenchment in many critical areas, including parole. Clements had set out to change not only the direction of DOC policy, but also the agency's internal culture, and many of his initiatives are now on hold or have been quietly scrapped. While the system failures exposed by Ebel's rampage have generated a flurry of new legislation and heightened security measures, some observers wonder if Clements's death has also jeopardized reforms that he regarded as long overdue.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

What a crock!  'coddling and more management personnel for these criminals is what's needed'  No, tougher prisons, ones where dope and sex aren't allowed, drugs are rampant in our prison system, violators, including guards should be penalized severely, but instead lose their jobs and near nothing happens to the inmates.

 . The CMRC has a history of management and operational issues and is currently teeming with parole violators due for re-release within six months; a recent audit found that those inmates "are not amenable to available programming and are involving themselves in disruptive behavior."

 It's the prisons fault these criminals are there, not theirs.  More coddling of those who can't seem to find right from wrong.  Stop with the nonsense, one of these darlings shot and killed Clements, and he was one of your 'shining examples' of how to do it right.


And, my heart goes out to the Clements family, and the Ebel family.

Violence and anger are a part of our society, and our culture.d.

Here are another two victims, with their families living with pain for the rest of their lives.

No one, and I mean no one, heals from this.


Typical Prendergast.  Informative, Perfectly written, and True.

I have often wondered what had motivated Ebel to be so angry. After reading the article it became obvious: Good parents. Uncontrolled anger. Bad System.

Spending 23 hours a day captive in a room is, to me, a very reasonable definition of cruel and unusual punishment. How did anyone ever think that this could help a lost and angry young man.

If you will read the book: Violence by James Gilligan you will learn the reason many young men are violent: abuse, isolation, being belittled, abused, and criticized. That is our prison system, and it was the system that Tom Clements was trying to fix.

How sad and how tragic that Ebel ended up killing one of the men trying to make a difference.

The saddest comment though, was the absurd remark by the "veteran parole officer" at the very end, when he said that this was "as bad a storm as it could have been."  I almost laughed at the absurdity.

To treat this violent and lost young man like an animal, and then make that statement because he killed the head of the department is not very wise. This end result could have been much worse. Ebel could have gone to a populated area, and killed many more. That it finally made it personal for this seasoned officer because it was so close to home may have been what Ebel was looking for.

Note that changes are being made.

Prisoners may be treated like human beings someday. 

Wouldn't that be a nice thing in a civilized society.

No, seriously.


Increasingly, many advocates believe hope died with Clements.  During Clements' tenure, everyone at the top of DOC returned emails, phone calls and really, really seemed excited over the idea of change, that they were no longer part of an uncaring, moribund bureaucracy, but that improvements could and would be made.  There was a sense of hope, purpose and possibilities among leadership, prisoners and advocates.

All of that has been crushed.

We hope that more good things are happening behind the scenes and DOC is keeping things quiet but we don't see new programs, and existing ones are put on hold.  The money is certainly there. Is there a grand vision that we just aren't privy to? All we can do is wonder...

Rick Raemisch is to be applauded for curbing the use of solitary confinement. However, San Carlos, where mentally ill prisoners are treated, has been the site of two really brutal deaths in the last few months and the facility seems to have major problems. Since America has happily closed mental institutions and opened more prisons to house the mentally ill,  we must take better care of those broken human beings. Raemisch has vowed to do that and we hope he will keep his promise. And make changes at San Carlos in order to keep prisoners and staff safe.

Finally, I am haunted by the continued questions re: Clements' death, including a throw away sentence buried in all the scandal involving Sheriff  Terry Maketa, who is in charge of Clements' investigation. According to the Gazette, one of the several officers Maketa was having an affair with had two-year-old files on her desk involving investigations that  had never been opened. 

Does that explain the lack of action on Clements' murder? 

Once again, all we can do is wonder...

muhutdafuga topcommenter

@gofastgo Pool uninformed little cultist, feeling like prison is such a warm fuzzy place.  Authoritarian conservatives just love prisons and their overuse.  Can't you just feel the freedom.


@Randy144 Well, you go on and feel sorrow for the Ebel family, send them a few bucks if you could Randy, in the meantime I want all the criminals caged.


@Randy144 You bleeding heart liberals make me sick to my stomach.  How about having them 'breaking rocks' all day doing hard labor?  How about closing the library and gym?  How about no lawsuits being filed from inside a prison?  How about a much stricter drug policy for these darlings of society?

'prisoners may be treated like human beings someday, and wouldn't that be nice'  NICE!  What a 'head-in-the-sand' idiot.  THERE ARE BAD PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, yes, they are human, beyond that, they are not like you dummy.  They take coddling like the muslims take negotiations and treaties, laughable, might is right.


@maryellen11 'broken human beings'?  Okay, can we agree that they cannot be fixed?  Unbroken?  The results of 'curing' the mentally ill are what I find disturbing.  They 'cure' a mother who drowned her children, she was having a bad day or something akin to that, cured now, she's once again back in your imagined society, (not mine btw) do you just hope she doesn't  have another 'bad day' or just hope that when she does, you or yours aren't in her company?

muhutdafuga topcommenter

@gofastgo @Randy144 Even the bush crime family?  You see, if someone has enough money and power, they face an entirely different "justice" system than most good Americans.


@gofastgo @Randy144  First Gofastgo you are not above the rest of us...  I'll make it very clear that I'm far from a liberal, in fact I'm a Wyoming raised conservative w/ enough common sense to know this has nothing to do with anyone's political preference!!! I bust my a*# everyday to free my husband who is unfortunately serving time for a crime not committed. While we constantly look for ways to fight for our lives I've realized there are many people in the same situation. With your mentioned agenda we're supposed to just shrug a shoulder??!!  People such as you amaze me and remind me why we have not advanced anymore in the world! I hope you NEVER have to experience yourself or a loved one locked away for something they did not do; but, on the other hand I sure in hell wish if someone was to be wrongfully accused and convicted it would be you!! 

Denver Concert Tickets