New Solitary Confinement Report Cites Colorado Reforms

A new report on the use of solitary confinement in America's prisons and jails, highly critical of the practice and challenging many common myths about who's in lockdown and why, looks closely at recent reform efforts in the Colorado prison system and concludes that many inmates can be removed from segregated housing without compromising the safety of staff, prisoners or the public. 

Just a few years ago, the Colorado Department of Corrections was regularly upbraided by human rights groups for its heavy reliance on solitary (or "administrative segregation") to deal with disruptive and/or mentally ill prisoners; the percentage of the DOC population housed in some form of isolation was up to five times higher than the national average. The overuse of solitary was a top concern of Tom Clements when he took over as DOC's new chief in 2011, and it became an even more pressing issue after Clements was murdered in 2013 by a parole absconder, Evan Ebel, who had been released directly to the streets after many years in ad-seg. 

Clements's successor, Rick Raemisch, made a point of spending 20 hours in the hole himself — and writing about the experience in an op/ed for the New York Times.  Under Raemisch, the DOC has dramatically reduced its use of solitary confinement, especially by moving prisoners with diagnosed "major mental illness" into residential treatment programs. Officially, the number of prisoners held in long-term ad-seg dropped from 1,166 in 2009 to 215 in 2014. 

That drop is a keen topic of discussion in a just-released report from the reform-minded Vera Institute of Justice, which examines common misconceptions about solitary — for example, that it's only the most violent inmates who end up there — and presents data that the practice is costly, overused, and makes prisons harder to manage. As we've reported elsewhere, there are lingering questions about the huge reduction in the use of solitary that the DOC claims; some critics have claimed that much of the drop can be attributed to redefining what constitutes "major mental illness," and that some of the residential treatment programs are almost as restrictive as 23-hour-a-day lockdown. But the Vera report notes several interesting results of Colorado's effort, including data that indicates the shift has been accomplished with little or no increase of reported assaults or other facility disruptions. The DOC also claims that it hasn't released any prisoner from "administrative segregation or restrictive housing maximum security status directly to the community since May 2014."

"A large body of evidence has now well established that the typical circumstances and conditions of segregated housing — the deprivation of regular social intercourse and interaction, the removal of the rudimentary sights and sounds of life, and the severe restrictions on such basic human activities as eating, showering, or recreating — damage, sometimes irreparably, the people thus confined and the communities to which they return," the report states. "And they fail to make prisons and jails any safer for those incarcerated or for the people who work in them."

According to the report, there are at least 80,000 prisoners nationwide held in some form of segregated housing — and possibly more, given discrepancies in reporting and a bewildering array of terms and classifications used by different agencies to characterize their use of solitary confinement for punishment, protective custody or simply isolation of a wide range of prisoners.  

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast