Did Some of Colorado's Prison Reforms Die With Tom Clements?
This week's cover story traces the dramatic shift in direction of the Colorado Department of Corrections since the 2013 murder of its chief, Tom Clements, by Evan Ebel, a violent parolee who'd just spent six years in solitary confinement. The death of the reform-minded Clements had a profound impact on DOC operations, leadership and morale, but the lasting effects of the tragedy on prison policy and public safety are still being debated.
On one hand, the efforts of Clements's successor, Rick Raemisch, to carry on his legacy has drawn national attention and resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of mentally ill inmates held in solitary confinement. But some civil liberty activists and prison reformers question how much of the transition from "administrative segregation" to what is now termed "residential treatment programs" involves more of a shift in terminology than in actual conditions of confinement, while others note, with dismay, a rising number of parole violations and a suddenly increasing prison population, reversing a four-year decline.
To get a better idea of where the system seems to be heading, consider the fate of two radically different initiatives. Clements was a big supporter of what was once known as the Long-Term Offender Program, or LTOP, an innovative effort to help elderly parolees succeed back in society by pairing them with other former prisoners as mentors. The program got a glowing report on National Public Radio's All Things Considered recently, but volunteers say the program, which has the potential of saving the state millions in medical costs for geriatric prisoners, has been shelved by the new DOC leadership. "We're not getting any more referrals," says one LTOP mentor.
DOC spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson says the LTOP candidates are now being managed through the department's "presumptive parole" program, which "blends the bits and pieces of previous pilot programs into a comprehensive case planning strategy for these offenders."
At the same time, Raemisch has embarked on some new strategies for dealing with the system's most disruptive offenders. In an interview last week, he noted that the department has transferred an unspecified number of assaultive, noncompliant or otherwise troublesome offenders to other states. Such a transfer usually involves a quid pro quo; in other words, Colorado agrees to take other states' troublemakers in return. But Raemisch sees this as a win-win: "From what I've seen, they tend to act up the first month or so. Then they realize that they need to follow the rules to get back to where they can be close to their families again."
But is moving the hard-to-manage cases to another state a viable solution? Studies indicate that prisoners who are incarcerated far from family contact are more likely to reoffend, and some families of transferred inmates are already questioning the rationale for the moves. One mother of a Sterling prisoner who's headed for the East Coast insists that he was free of disciplinary reports and teaching GED classes when he learned of the transfer.
"They told one of the others who was being moved that it has something to do with Tom Clements's death," the woman reports. " Why? These men were not involved."
For more about the DOC's challenges and achievements over the past year, check out this week's feature.
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