A Prison Guard's Take on Solitary Confinement and Who Belongs There
Three years ago, Colorado's state prison system kept nearly 10 percent of its population held in solitary confinement, a rate that was about seven times the national average. That excessive use began to change under Department of Corrections executive director Tom Clements, until his 2013 murder by Evan Ebel, an inmate who'd been released to the streets directly after years of solitary.
Clements' successor, Rick Raemisch, has made significant strides in further reducing the "administrative segregation" population, particularly for inmates who've been diagnosed as mentally ill, and pushing programs to prepare prisoners for release. The effort has drawn national attention, especially after Raemisch wrote a piece for the New York Times about spending twenty hours in solitary himself.
The experience of brief isolation, the chief wrote, soon had him feeling "twitchy and paranoid" and wondering how long it would take to lose his sanity: "Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in."
The DOC's change of direction in the use of solitary has drawn praise from the ACLU and prison reform groups. But it's also produced some grumbling within the ranks. As we've previously reported, some prisoners claim that the "residential treatment programs" in which mentally ill prisoners are now being placed aren't much different from solitary confinement. And some correctional officers believe moving prisoners rapidly out of ad-seg has created more management problems in general population and taken away a basic deterrent they've used to try to control the behavior of the most disruptive inmates.
A recent anonymous letter sent to Westword reflects the latter point of view. The author, who claims to be a correctional officer at the state supermax and prefers to be known as "CO John Smith," decided to investigate for himself what it might be like to spend twenty hours in the hole. Here's his account, edited for length:
I read the letter written by Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, that was published in the New York Times in February 2014. As a correctional officer, assigned to the Colorado State Penitentiary, I stewed on this letter for months. During this time, I really tried to see the environment from his point of view. Then I launched my plan. With the help of my co-workers, I, too, would spend 20 hours inside a cell in the Colorado State Penitentiary.
I made modifications to my appearance and dressed in an inmate's uniform. I was handcuffed by officers, and then escorted to a cell in a part of the institution that was run by employees who would not recognize me. After the door closed behind me and my handcuffs were removed, I was left alone with my mesh bag of toiletries and bedding. I was very familiar with the noises on the other side of the door. I knew what it was like to walk those tiers, check the cells, and check the day room area, but now, from this side of the door, the sounds were somewhat different.
I didn't have any personal property and sat in that cell with only a sink, toilet and bed. I could hear inmates talking and the sounds from their TVs. When the main lights in the pod were turned off, I fell into a fitful sleep. Every time a toilet flushed or an officer could be heard making the cell checks, I stirred. As I stirred I thought, is this how a person is driven mad? Is living in this type of environment as inhumane as Raemisch wrote in his letter?
But then I recalled the many nights that I have stayed in a hotel. I have never been able to get a good night's sleep that first night in a different environment. I remember hearing the night sounds of toilets flushing and elevators working during my most recent hotel stay. Now I was surrounded by people who had been placed in the most secure prison in Colorado for doing or orchestrating horrible acts of violence against others. Does the fact that I cannot sleep well mean that I am on the verge of losing my mind?
The guard's letter continues:
I awoke to the sounds of food carts banging against the sides of the doors and the main lights coming on. I was told to stand for count, which really meant to put at least one foot on the floor as the officers walked by my cell window. I could see through my window that it was still dark outside, but I could sense that dawn was on the horizon.
Strangely absent from Raemisch's letter is what happened next, during the day. From the moment the food carts entered the pod for breakfast, my "isolation" was interrupted many times by people talking to me at my door. The first human interaction I had was with the staff delivering the food trays. Soon after that, the sergeant was making rounds to inquire whether I wanted to have my one hour out in the exercise area and then a shower. Then the nurse was in the pod handing out medications, and she stopped at my cell to ask if I had any medical needs. An hour later, the teachers came through with their carts. Around noon, the case managers entered the pod and began talking to inmates and having most of them escorted out to an interview area. Around this same time, mental health clinicians were in and out, also having inmates escorted to interview areas. From my years as a corrections officer in this facility, I knew that these were normal events for the day.
The communication between inmates on the tier was also familiar to me, but the extent of actual conversation was a little surprising. From the control area I have often heard snippets of shouting and talking, but the deep conversations that were going on between inmates, usually through the vents, were new to me. Of course, no description of this environment would be complete without mentioning the noises from the TVs that were possessed by just about every inmate in the pod. In this facility, the inmates can get a loaner TV if they don't own their own.
As the hour hand moved just past the 20th hour, I was escorted to intake, where my identity was restored. I know that 20 hours is not that long compared to the sentences of many of the inmates held in this environment, but it was long enough for Raemisch to declare that he had learned enough to mount a campaign of reform against the use of this type of confinement. However, there are stark differences between his stay in ad seg and my stay.
I know that 97 % of all inmates will be returned to the community, and even in this supermax environment, we need to work to prepare them for a safe transition. But I also know what it feels like to be the victim of a vicious, unprovoked attack by an inmate in a lower security facility. I know what it feels like to talk to the parents of the victims of brutal acts of terror committed by inmates who are now housed here in the Colorado State Penitatiary. I know what it is like to have feces and urine thrown on me as I pass out food trays.
I know what it is like to stand at the funeral of a fellow officer who was brutally, and without provocation, killed by an inmate in a medium security prison. I know what it is like to attend the early retirement party of an employee who will never be able to return to full duty after being assaulted by one of the inmates confined in the Colorado State Penitentiary. I know what it is like to work in this environment, often working sixteen hours shifts, in order to man the necessary posts. I know what it is like to question my sanity when I review the abuse that I have endured from inmates at the end of a shift.
I wonder if my executive director thought of any of this as he sat in his cell as an inmate in the Colorado State Penitentiary. I wonder if he thought of any of the victims of these inmates when he wrote his now infamous letter.
I know when this letter is read, some people will think this is a work of fiction, because an officer couldn't have possibly gone undercover as an inmate. However, why is it more believable to think that an executive director, a public figure, could be secreted away as an inmate inside a supermax prison and not an officer? The executive director should be recognizable to all of his employees; his photo hangs in the main entrance area. I am just one of 500 people that work here at CSP.
What is certain is that my experiment in ad seg does not further the current political agenda in this country, and I will not be invited to testify in front of Congress. I do expect to have my identity tracked down and then to be attacked, even though I did not really spend 20 hours in a supermax cell posing as an inmate. Instead, I spent over 20 years working in this environment and talking to the inmates inside CSP. The experiment detailed here is fiction, but the processes I described and the connections that I draw between the letter written by the executive director and myself are important for a full understanding of this environment. I urge all policy makers that influence corrections to consider this point of view before disallowing the use of all segregation beds and turning these very dangerous inmates loose into lower security facilities and possibly to the community.
Correctional Officer John Smith
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.