Colorado Department of Corrections officials say that a push to reduce the use of solitary confinement over the past few years has paid off handsomely — resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of prisoners in lockdown, a drop in inmate suicides and assaults on staff, and complete elimination of the once-common practice of releasing inmates directly from isolation to the street. In a new report summarizing the reforms, DOC executive director Rick Raemisch and deputy director Kellie Wasko write that it's too early to draw conclusions, but "the initial results are worth celebrating."
But some inmates and prison reform advocates have expressed skepticism about the claimed achievements. While there's no disputing that the DOC, which formerly had one of the highest percentages of inmates in administrative segregation in the country, has come to rely less on the practice, the doubters say the shift has been more about terminology than substantial change, and that certain phases of the new approach appear to place more restrictions on those in maximum security than the previous policy did.
The shakeup over solitary began under Raemisch's predecessor, Tom Clements. When Clements took over the prison chief job in 2011, the percentage of Colorado prisoners in "ad-seg" was 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 way of dealing with the mentally ill, suspected gang members, chronic screwups, or anyone else who appeared to be at risk of harm or harming others.
Clements regarded the excessive use of ad-seg as a public safety issue. The average stay in isolation was nearly two years. Worse, half of the ad-seg prisoners completed their sentence in isolation, with little or no preparation for the move from an eight-by-ten-foot cell back into the community. During his first two years on the job, Clements cut the ad-seg population in half. But then Clements was murdered at his home by Evan Ebel, a parolee who'd just been released just weeks earlier after spending most of the past six years in solitary. The crime shook the prison system to its core, prompting both a crackdown on parole and accelerated efforts to get prisoners out of lockdown and into drug treatment and mental-health programs before release.
Under Raemisch, Colorado's DOC has emerged as a leader in the solitary reform movement; Raemisch even spent a night in ad-seg himself and wrote about it for the New York Times. The new chief ordered that inmates diagnosed with "serious" mental illness be moved out of solitary and into residential treatment programs, where they could expect more social and therapeutic interactions. The ad-seg label was scrapped in favor of a tiered system of restrictions known as a "sanction matrix," with the most disruptive prisoners held in what is now called "restrictive housing-maximum security status." Offenders could then move into "close custody" management and transition units that allow more out-of-cell time (from four to six hours a day) as their behavior improves.
As a result of such innovations, Raemisch and Wasko report, the number of ad-seg inmates has dropped from 1500 prisoners to around 150 — less than one percent of the total prison population. There are no offenders with "serious mental illness" in max-security status, they insist. Forced cell entries at San Carlos Correctional Facility, a special prison for those with mental illness, have declined by 77 percent, thanks in part to the use of "de-escalation rooms" and positive incentives to motivate prisoners to come out of their cells for therapy sessions. And inmate assaults on staff have declined by half at San Carlos and the Centennial Correctional Facility, which houses another residential treatment program.
But some inmates have described the out-of-cell time at San Carlos as not all that different from being in ad-seg. The Raemisch-Wasko update notes that the facility now offers "restraint tables that accommodate up to four offenders restrained together to facilitate group and pro-social interactions with a therapist or clinician. This allows the safety of the environment, the offenders and the staff member, but encourages offenders to get out of their cells in small groups."
One persistent critic of the new approach is Troy Anderson, a prisoner who spent more than a decade in ad-seg at the Colorado State Penitentiary and has been diagnosed with extreme anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and other mental issues dating back to childhood. In 2012 a federal judge ruled that the DOC was violating the law by failing to provide Anderson with appropriate mental health treatment, fresh air, direct sunlight and the opportunity for outdoor recreation; the ruling ultimately led to a plan to build rec yards at CSP to defuse a class-action lawsuit by other prisoners. Anderson was moved to the Sterling Correctional Facility — where, he says, he was faring well in a treatment program until it was abruptly changed earlier this year.
Anderson has since gone through several moves. After a metal shank was found in his possession — he claims that prison officials were trying to "create a situation where my life would be in danger" and he had to protect himself — he was sent back to CSP. He says the restrictions in maximum security — no TV for three months, extremely limited canteen, only one hour out-of-cell five days a week — are worse than when it was called ad-seg. Even the metal stools in CSP cells had been removed out of concerns that they could be used to make weapons.
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Several CSP inmates went on a hunger strike a few months ago to protest the new conditions. "The first two weeks I wasn't even allowed any books," says one of those protesters, who didn't want his name used out of concerns about retaliation. "I was left in my cell with nothing more than my thoughts. I feel that my mental status has been negatively affected by that. There isn't even any possibility of advancement as far as incentives or privileges are concerned. I am constricted to one phone call a month to my family. In the three months I've been here I have lost at least twenty pounds due to lack of food; we are served our last meal of the day at 4:15 p.m. and not fed again until fourteen hours later, and I am not allowed to order any sort of food off canteen."
Anderson is now at San Carlos — where, he says, "I was immediately placed on restrictions I've never seen before. I was refused showers, shave, legal paperwork, legal calls, stamps, paper, envelopes, sheets and blankets, personal calls...They clearly wanted to start off with a hostile and very untherapeutic atmosphere."
Anderson is still in litigation with the DOC over his mental health needs. He claims that his current "treatment plan" ignores previous diagnoses from DOC's own doctors: "I have no doubt they'll keep up their charade, and when my max-seg time is up, they'll place me in a pod. And it'll be a set-up, and I will then be called a violent crazy animal. All over their complete denial of treatment. They have no intention of ever helping me."
The Raemisch-Wasko report states that "remaining Restrictive Housing offenders receive continual review, with the goal of transitioning them back into General Population as soon as safely possible."