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.
"Tom's murder was incredibly destabilizing," says Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "Not just the murder itself, but the six months of media scrutiny and criticism that followed, the upheaval in leadership. They've had to rebuild from the inside. That event has had repercussions beyond anything that I can imagine."
Evan Ebel was barely twenty years old when he entered the state prison system in early 2005. He was looking at eight years for a crime binge that had involved a heap of robbery, menacing and assault charges. Initially classified as a medium-security inmate, he soon had his status changed to "close," then "max administrative segregation." In the fall of 2006, he was moved to the Colorado State Penitentiary, the state's supermax prison. He would spend all but a few months of the next six years in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
Troy Anderson, a CSP veteran, was struck by how much the new kid reminded him of his own younger self — a hothead dogged by dark impulses. Both came from loving families but had gotten involved in drugs and bad company at an early age and spiraled out of control. "He was on the pod above me," Anderson recalls. "We had a bunch of mutual bros. And when he was on the street, he was getting dope from my old bros. So he'd heard all kind of stories. They called him 'Evil' because his last name sounded like it. That was my nickname, too.
"I started calling him Number Two. All kinds of dudes did. It was funny. We got real close."
Anderson, too, had first landed in prison at twenty, after an adolescence scarred with robberies and fights, suicide attempts and escapes from mental wards. He had spent most of his time in lockdown after a series of assaults on staff and other inmates. Doctors disagreed about whether he suffered from a schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, "intermittent explosive disorder" or some untreatable personality disorder ["Head Games," September 21, 2006]. Evil Ebel seemed to be on a similar trajectory, a missile headed for nothing more than its own destruction.
Ebel spent much of his youth in tough-love boot camps for troubled teens. (One of the camps, the Pacific Coast Academy in Samoa, was later shut down after an investigation into allegations of beatings and other abuse.) His father, Jack Ebel, a prominent oil and gas attorney and longtime friend of Hickenlooper's, invested freely in camps, counselors and behavior-modification programs, but Evan's penchant for crime just seemed to get worse — particularly after the 2004 death of his sixteen-year-old sister in a car crash. Already on probation for a misdemeanor, he was busted again in a car that didn't belong to him, with a gun that had a defaced serial number. His probation officer told the court that Ebel had a history of weapons violations and had shot himself in the stomach and the leg. (In a later prison grievance, Ebel stated that he "had a colostomy bag for 4 years & 1/2 due to separate GSW [gunshot wounds] & was sown back together in DOC.")
Those misadventures were followed by a carjacking, a slew of fresh charges and prison. After a series of write-ups at the Fremont Correctional Facility — for fighting, smearing feces on another prisoner's cell door, flooding the tier, damaging property, screaming at staff and telling one female officer that if he ever saw her on the streets he would "make her beg for her life" — he was shipped off to the Colorado State Penitentiary.
He had been at the supermax only a few weeks when he slipped his cuffs and attacked a corrections officer, punching him and threatening to kill his family. Other staff responded promptly, and Ebel ended up with four stitches above his left eye, a busted lip, a bloody nose — and another four-year sentence for assault.
"They whupped him and threw a case on him," Anderson says. "He pretty much gave up on the mental-health shit after that. He could have used it. A lot of guys could."
Ebel filed numerous grievances while in ad-seg, about everything from interference with his mail to the monotony of the radio channels offered. But what seemed to bother him the most was the utter indifference of his keepers, the casual brutality and humiliation that went along with living in a cage. It was fine for him to shout threats, hurl shit and go berserk, but he expected better from the government. He complained bitterly about the beating he endured: "It doesn't matter what my alleged actions are, there's nothing that justifies assaultive behavior by staff." He was even more incensed that he had to pay a ten-dollar fee to be stitched up afterward.
After a year and a half at CSP, Ebel was moved to the Pro Unit at Centennial, a program that provided ad-seg prisoners a way to gradually progress back to general population. But he continued to fight, make threats, defy the rules and get gassed with pepper spray. In a few months, he was sent back to the supermax.
By this point he had acquired several tattoos, including a swastika and the word HOPELESS etched into his abdomen. He read white-supremacist newsletters and was listed in prison records as a member of the 211 Crew, a white prison gang. He wrote a letter to a female prisoner, intercepted by authorities, that described how he ached to even the score against his captors: "I just fantasize about catching them out on the bricks and subjecting them to vicious torture and eventual murder."
"He was torn," Anderson insists. "He really wanted to live a good life. He has a great dad and mom, and he wanted to be a son they deserved. At the same time, he was full of rage at this system.... We debated the use of violence over and over, 'cause it seems like the only way to be heard. It's a way to make people understand the pain, a way to make them realize they never should've done whatever. It's vengeance. A reckoning."
Jack Ebel never gave up on his son, but he saw the young man he thought he knew turning into somebody else. Testifying before the state legislature in 2011 in support of a bill that would have required that prisoners spend time outside of ad-seg before release, he described the mental erosion he'd observed in his son in just a few years. Evan was anxious and paranoid and had developed a stammer.
"He'll rant a little bit," Ebel said of his visits with his son. "He'll be frustrated that he can't find the words.... Eventually, because I'm his father, he will talk to me. And I'm convinced, if any of the rest of you were to go talk to him, he wouldn't be able to talk to you.... We are exacerbating mental illness."
Before Clements, DOC bosses had tended to be veteran Colorado law enforcement figures such as John Suthers or Ari Zavaras, defenders of the status quo who presided over an ever-expanding budget. (The current DOC annual budget is $700 million, ten times what is was in 1985; during that time, Colorado's prison population has also increased at ten times the rate of the state's population growth.) Their first priority was to keep a lid on things — and, if possible, to keep the department out of the newspapers.
Clements was different. He'd spent three decades working in corrections, from managing a parole caseload in one of the dicier sections of St. Louis to the upper echelons of the Missouri state system. He'd rattled cages there by moving away from the traditional lock-'em-away approach to one that emphasized employment, substance-abuse treatment and incentive programs designed to prepare inmates for life back in society.
If his predecessors in Colorado were hands-off managers, Clements was hands-on to the point of micromanagement. He pored over revocation paperwork rather than simply signing off on it. He held "town hall" meetings at each state prison in order to hear directly from staff about problems and challenges. He walked the tiers to hear even more directly from prisoners.
In 2012, after Sergeant Mary Rickard was fatally attacked by a convicted child rapist at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, Clements showed up at the prison on Christmas Day. He spent the day there, talking to staff. He wasn't there to give any speeches, hadn't even considered bringing along any press. He just wanted his team to know that he understood the dangerous nature of the profession; you could try to do everything right and still get hurt, even killed.
The solitary-confinement problem weighed heavily on him. He ordered a review of all cases in which prisoners had been in ad-seg for more than a year. He approved the mothballing of a second supermax, which had been built in anticipation of a demand for more isolation cells. He didn't want to see any inmate sitting in ad-seg until the day the state was required to release him. But for some of the hardest, most disruptive cases, there didn't seem to be any alternative.
In 2011, Evan Ebel was moved from CSP to the Sterling prison. The fights, threats and consignment to ad-seg continued. ("Inmate Ebel #125083 was told to back out of his cell. He turned toward staff and said, 'Or what.' He was given directives to slow down and not pull away. He did not comply with directives. 30 days loss of privileges, 15 days loss of good time.") In addition to complaints about eye and back problems, he tried to engage staff in a discussion about his upcoming release.
"Do you have an obligation to the public," he asked, "to reaclimatize [sic] 'dangerous' inmates to being around other human beings prior to releasing them into society after they have spent years in solitary confinement & if not, why not?"
He posed the question in three separate grievances. He was told his own "assaultive history" was the reason he was being held in ad-seg until the last possible day: "You have been multiple opportunities [sic] to progress as we strive for you to be given opportunities to succeed."
Troy "Evil" Anderson was in the same unit at Sterling for the last few weeks of Ebel's stay. Anderson had been shipped out of CSP as the result of a federal lawsuit, after a decade during which he'd been confined in the supermax with little mental-health treatment and no access to outdoor exercise or direct sunlight — conditions that U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson described as "a paradigm of inhumane treatment." According to Anderson, some staffers at Sterling continued to "mess with" Ebel right up until his release.
"They really were fucking with him," Anderson says. "Four days prior to his original release date, they came and told him he wouldn't be going home. He had three more weeks."
Actually, he had more time than that on the books. But an error in court paperwork had transformed his four-year sentence for assaulting a guard from a consecutive to a concurrent term, resulting in a mandatory parole date four years earlier than it should have been. The miscalculation wasn't discovered until after his death; whether four more years of prison would have made him any less lethal is anyone's guess.
He was put on an ankle monitor and designated a "very high-risk" parolee, with a two-in-three chance of winding up back in prison. Yet by some indicators, the 28-year-old Ebel seemed to have a better chance than most of making it. His father had found him a place to stay and a job doing legal research. He kept his appointments and made it through the first crucial weeks of supervision without incident. There was nothing to suggest that he was about to jump parole.
But he was far from acclimatized. "I got a letter a week when he got out," Anderson says. "He felt wrong living out there. Guilty. Like he didn't deserve it. Like he owed us something 'cause we were still here."
On March 14, his 46th day on the streets, he cut off his electronic monitor and went missing, taking with him the Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter he'd coaxed Stevie Vigil into buying for him a week earlier. On March 17, he used the gun to murder Nathan Leon, a 27-year-old office worker who delivered pizzas on the side to help support his family; Ebel apparently figured Leon's pizza uniform might make a good disguise for an assassin.
Before he killed Leon, he had him read a statement into a handheld voice recorder. The actual recording has not been released. The version found in Vigil's court file has several mangled words, either from Ebel or the transcriptionist, and possible corrections are in brackets as follows: "For twenty years we've been subject to your [fascism], [now] witness ours. You didn't give two shits about us or our families and you ensured that we were locked behind a door, to disrespect us at every opportunity, so why should we care about you and yours. In short you treated us inhumanely, and so we simply seek to do the same, and we take [comfort] in the knowledge that we leave your wives without husbands, and your children fatherless. You wanted to play the mad scientist, well they will be your Frankenstein."
Two days later, he used the same gun to shoot Clements in the chest. The 58-year-old prison chief, father of two grown daughters, died in the arms of his wife, Lisa.
Ebel fled to Texas in a black Cadillac. He fired on a sheriff's deputy during a traffic stop; the deputy, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, survived. The encounter led to a high-speed chase across two counties and a crash with an eighteen-wheeler. Ebel came out of the wreck shooting and kept at it until the cops gunned him down.
He was not going back.
Rick Raemisch doesn't hesitate when asked what he considers his greatest accomplishment in his first year as executive director of the DOC.
"As of today," he says, "the number of severely mentally ill inmates in administrative segregation is zero. The number of female inmates in administrative segregation is zero. We have substantially reduced the use of administrative segregation in all of our facilities."
A former sheriff and head of the Wisconsin prison system, Raemisch says he was given clear directives by Hickenlooper to honor the legacy of Tom Clements and carry on a task — reducing the use of solitary confinement — that his predecessor considered vital to public safety. That was fine with Raemisch, who'd launched a similar initiative in Wisconsin; like Clements, he regarded the increasing reliance on ad-seg across the country as a disturbing and counterproductive trend.
"We're on the front line of a national debate right now," Raemisch says. "We discussed whether we wanted to lead or follow, and we decided it's better to lead."
The new director became a prominent figure in that debate after he decided to check into ad-seg himself for twenty hours. Raemisch says the experiment was for "internal purposes," but after his account of the move appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times last February, he was besieged with media requests.
His night in solitary drew praise from prison activists, skepticism from staff — and jeers from some prisoners. ("The new director puts on a good show," Anderson says. "All that about how he endured the horrors of twenty hours of solitary. Oh, the humanity!") In his piece, Raemisch readily acknowledged that his brief time in the hole was "practically a blink" compared to what the typical ad-seg inmate faces. He also observed that whatever six years of solitary confinement did to Evan Ebel, "it was not for the better."
He now says that the experience reinforced his conviction that what was supposed to be a short-term form of isolation has evolved into a damaging, long-term management tool. "It's not acceptable to take someone who's delusional or having a mental-health crisis and take their clothes off and give them a smock and put them in an isolated cell to deal with their own demons," he says. "Our job is not to make people worse than when they got here. Our job is to fix people, so that we don't have more victims."
In talks with staff, Raemisch suggested that by focusing on operational efficiency — including locking away disruptive and possibly deranged inmates — the department had lost sight of its principal mission. Not a popular message in a business that abandoned the term "rehabilitation" decades ago, but it began to sink in. New edicts called for moving those with diagnosed mental illnesses out of ad-seg as soon as possible and placing them in residential treatment programs.
Officially, the DOC now claims to have about 220 inmates classified as maximum-security — a dramatic reduction from the 1,500 in ad-seg three years ago. But some skeptics have questioned whether the transformation has been, to some extent, simply a matter of relabeling. The "severely mentally ill," for example, who are supposed to be kept out of ad-seg except in extreme circumstances, are a somewhat different group from what prison officials used to refer to as the "chronically mentally ill," and wholly distinct from a newly defined group, "offenders with acute psychological symptoms or distress," who "may present a risk of self-injury, assaultive behavior, or facility disruption."
It's also not clear at this stage to what extent the residential treatment programs represent an improvement over ad-seg. Observers at the ACLU of Colorado, which helped shape new legislation on behalf of mentally ill prisoners, say they're still gathering data on the actual day-to-day conditions of the treatment programs and other initiatives, such as a unit for "transitional management control unit offenders" at CSP, who are out of their cells for four hours a day.
"What we're seeing so far is a very steep decline of numbers in ad-seg," says Denise Maes, the Colorado ACLU's public-policy director. "But with a lack of definitions, it's hard to know how the department is abiding by the law. So much is up to their discretion."
DOC officials say they no longer have any ad-seg cells at San Carlos, a prison designed for mentally ill offenders. But some occupants of its most restrictive unit say the differences aren't all that significant. "They lie and say this is not ad-seg, even though it is," reports Ron White, who was moved to San Carlos from Centennial a few months ago. "After being in ad-seg for 25 years, I think I know what ad-seg is by now."
Convicted of three homicides in the 1980s, including the slaying and dismemberment of a roommate, White is serving life without parole. At one point he resided in the state's most exclusive ad-seg unit, death row, but his death sentence was set aside in 1998 amid allegations of government misconduct. He has spent most of the past 25 years in lockdown and has a long history of complaints of mistreatment, supported to some extent by court and prison records detailing instances of gassings, use of force, and medical neglect. He claims to have suffered a head injury from one scuffle with staff. He says he was making progress in a Centennial mental-health program, where he was allowed outside for exercise, before he was "kidnapped" to San Carlos because of threats he allegedly made against DOC employees.
"Several CSP prisoners did not want to go to the Centennial mental-health program," White says. "They take them anyway, and after months of them not cooperating, they send them back to CSP. I believe they do it in order to increase their statistics of how many people they are removing from ad-seg. But the mental-health programs are almost all ad-seg. Letting people out of their cell to be chained to a table for two hours at a class they don't care to attend is worse than being in a cell."
His introduction to San Carlos involved "a Hannibal Lecter chair in a cold strip cell," White says. "I had quit threatening them when I left CSP months ago," he insists. "But within a few hours I was at San Carlos, set up, written up, stripped of my property, knowing I will be on LOP [loss of privileges] with no TV, phone calls or decent commissary privileges for months. If I had the sometimes allowable electric razor, I would likely have sliced my arms with those meat-grinder blades."
Raemisch says the residential treatment programs are designed to offer a gradual process of reintegration: "When they first get there, they are spending long amounts of time in their cells. It's not 23 hours a day, but a lot of these individuals have been in administrative segregation for years. They need a step-down program. Our goal, though, is to get them back into general population."
Unlike White, most of the state's ad-seg prisoners will eventually be released. According to the latest DOC data, the proportion of ad-seg inmates being sent directly into the community has dropped from 47 percent to less than 7 percent. "Most of them are going to residential treatment, to prepare them better for release," Raemisch notes. "Some have gone back to general population."
Despite his placement at San Carlos, White denies that he suffers from mental illness. At the same time, he says that the conditions of his confinement have at times made him question his own sanity. "It is mental illness when you pace your cell and sometimes go into verbal rages about bad things DOC did decades ago," he says. "I experienced hate and rage on the street, but not close to this level. And I was capable of controlling my actions better on the street. Out there, I could never beat a lady to death for the kind of things that made me want to beat some female DOC employee to death."
Pacing back and forth in solitary, White would often imagine a bouncing ball in his cell. He would roll his thumb, tracing the diagonal pattern of the ball caroming around the room. The rolling thumb became a nervous habit, an annoying tic he couldn't shake. It is, he suggests, "a slighter form of mental illness," one of the symptoms of living in a box.
On March 28, 2014, investigators from the DOC Inspector General's office conducted a shakedown of Troy Anderson's cell in Sterling and seized five letters he'd received more than a year earlier. The letters listed various return addresses; two supposedly were sent, with love, by one "Brandi Smith."
All five were written by Evan Ebel during his short stint on parole.
Anderson says none of the letters mentioned Ebel's deadly intentions. The last one, postmarked the day that Ebel cut off his ankle monitor, made reference to visiting with Anderson's parents and wishing he had more time to spend with them — but Ebel went on to say that he was "moving" and that this would be his last letter.
"Basically saying goodbye," Anderson says. "I thought it was weird."
Anderson maintains that Ebel acted alone in the murders he committed and that his motive is clear from the recording he left behind: to strike out against "state-sponsored torture."
"I had the same fantasies," he says. "The shit they create inside us that we take with us to the streets, it's too much.... I was pretty sure he left some message of some kind. I am pretty sure more has to be out there, too."
But investigators believe Ebel had help — and may have been acting on orders from 211 Crew leaders. Cell-phone records reportedly establish that he was in frequent contact with paroled gang members before and after killing Clements, and it's suspected that he was seeking refuge with a gang member in Texas when police cornered him. One law-enforcement theory presents the murder as retaliation for recent transfers of 211 shot-callers out of Sterling, eroding their control; another suggests that Homaidan al-Turki, a prisoner with influential relatives in Saudi Arabia who was serving time in Colorado for sexually assaulting his housekeeper, may have commissioned the DOC chief's death after Clements denied his attempt to be returned to his native country.
Anderson isn't buying any of it. Both he and Ebel had left the gangs and the "white-supremist nonsense" years earlier, he insists, disillusioned by the drug use of gang leaders and the "weak junkie bullshit." (Anderson himself claims to be one of the founders inside CSP of the Aryan Syndicate; testimony by a DOC gang-intel official in his lawsuit over solitary confinement indicates that he is no longer considered a member of any prison gang.)
"Saudi rapists and gang conspiracies make better fodder for public consumption," Anderson says. "There wasn't some huge conspiracy. Any contact with so-called gang members wasn't anything more than looking for some contact with people who could relate to being out of prison. The whole retaliation nonsense 'cause shot-callers were moved — think about it. That's so stupid. If you want to affect any gang, you hurt their ability to recruit and make money. How does this help them?
"To think anyone would do [a murder] 'cause some dope fiend told them to is just stupid. Evan wasn't a follower. He was smart and disciplined. He gave up being a sheep."
A spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office says the probe into Clements's murder is "ongoing and complex." But the absence of charges against Ebel's alleged co-conspirators, after nearly eighteen months of investigation, has frustrated DOC officials and failed to provide any clear guidance on how best to retool the department's approach to managing and monitoring high-risk inmates.
Stung by the intense media focus on parole operations after Ebel's rampage, the interim administration that took over for Clements made some predictable moves. Tim Hand, the veteran parole chief, was put on paid leave and then terminated without explanation — a move that many of the officers who worked for him regarded as pure scapegoating. There was also a quick shuffle in the leadership of the state parole board, followed by the inevitable crackdown on parolees. In the last fiscal year, the number of discretionary paroles granted by the board declined by 15 percent, while the number of parolees being hauled back to prison for technical violations — not new crimes, but violations of the conditions of their parole, such as missing a curfew or failing drug tests — went up by 14 percent.
Since Raemisch's arrival, the DOC has embarked on a more far-ranging overhaul of parole, including an outside review of caseloads and the training of officers assigned to electronic monitoring of high-risk parolees. It's worked with the company that supplies the monitors to drastically cut down on the thousands of false alarms that were swamping the system and delaying response to legitimate alerts. It's also received a boost in funding for a parole fugitive-apprehension unit and to put community parole officers in each prison to assist inmates who are scheduled for release.
Raemisch is particularly bullish on getting CPOs into the prisons, breaking down the long-established walls between facility staff and parole. "We believe that's going to make a smoother transition for the inmate," he says.
He talks about getting away from the "tail-'em-nail-'em-and-jail-'em" mentality of the old-style parole officer and finding ways to help ex-prisoners succeed — citing even simple things like getting them proper identification before they start hunting for a job. As it stands now, less than 40 percent of state inmates have a valid ID when they leave prison; that problem simply wasn't the facility's concern.
Down the line, the director wants to see more units in prisons focused on re-entry, or possibly an entire prison designed to make the passage from incarceration to gainful employment more plausible. The state currently contracts with a private prison, the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, that's supposed to do something similar, but the arrangement hasn't worked well. 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."
At the same time, some of the innovative re-entry programs that Clements was most keen about seem to have been stalled or shelved, at least until after the fall elections — for example, a much-praised program that connected prisoners serving long sentences with mentors who helped prepare them for release into a society far different from the one they left decades ago. The entire clemency process, by which the governor can address sentencing inequities or intervene on behalf of prisoners deserving of release, has been in limbo, too; Hickenlooper hasn't granted any sentence reductions since taking office and has left vacant for two years a panel that's supposed to screen clemency applications and make recommendations.
Donner, of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, says she's encouraged by some of the reforms but also wary of the fact that much of the new funding has gone to adding more staff. More parole officers, whether on the street or in the prisons, isn't going to fix the problem, she suggests.
"What they're doing now is better than being dropped off on Smith Road and trying to figure out how to get to the Lincoln [parole] office with no money," she says. "But people need help getting a job. That's where we need to be devoting a lot more of the resources. They need to find more partners in the community."
Donner remembers the old days, when the DOC's budget just seemed to grow like kudzu — the demand for more cells and staff going up and up as more and more of its wayward clientele kept circling through the revolving door, never finding a way out for more than a few months at a time. Corrections seemed to be a recession-proof venture, an enterprise that rewarded abject failure with ever-increasing wads of cash. And then, thanks to sentencing reform, a declining crime rate and increasing emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment, the trend began to slow down. The state prison population peaked at around 23,000 in 2009 and then began to drop. Clements became the first DOC director in decades to have to wrestle with the problem of which prisons he was going to shut down rather than where he was going to find more beds.
But since Clements's death, the inmate population has begun to creep upward again. It was up by 388 people at the end of June compared to a year ago; that's still lower than the 2009 peak, but considering that the population had dropped by 886 inmates a year earlier, "that's a significant trend reversal," Donner says. Even more alarming, from her perspective, is the rising number of people going back to prison because of parole failures. Technical violations of parole now account for 40 percent of all prison admissions. In other words, four out of ten people going into the system every month aren't just going to prison; they're going back.
"That's a number Tom followed very closely," Donner says. "Reducing the technical violations was a big priority for him."
Every month, Colorado releases upward of 800 prisoners on parole or sentence discharge. Some have used the time of their incarceration to better themselves; others have been damaged by the experience; still others may have been unfixable from the start. The data indicates that about half of them will be back behind bars within three years, having committed new crimes. The data also suggests that a few, the "very high-risk," should probably never be released at all. But the law says that they must be.
"Out of a thousand parolees on the street, you're going to get a dozen Evan Ebels," says one veteran parole officer. "This was as bad a storm as it could have been. It had nothing to do with staffing patterns. It's about managing people who are going to hurt people."
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- Denver Development: What Will Happen to Emily Griffth School on Prime City Block?