The battle for fresh air and sunlight at Colorado's supermax

In the summer of 2012 a federal judge declared that the conditions of solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary constitute "a paradigm of inhumane treatment" -- and ordered that a mentally ill inmate who'd been housed there for years was entitled to at least three hours a week of natural light, fresh air and outdoor exercise. Sixteen months later, not much has changed at CSP -- which is why student lawyers at the University of Denver have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state supermax, claiming violations of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Brooke Jackson originally ruled against the Colorado Department of Corrections in a lawsuit brought by DU's Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic on behalf of Troy Anderson, one of several inmates who's been at CSP for a decade or more with minimal exposure to the outdoors. At the supermax, so-called "outdoor rec" for high-security inmates consists of up to an hour of exercise in an odd-shaped room on each tier equipped with a chin-up bar; small holes allow some fresh air from outside to reach the room. Calling CSP "out of step with the rest of the nation" -- even the notorious federal supermax in Florence allows its inmates outdoor recreation in individual cages -- Jackson declared that prison officials must provide its charges with "meaningful exposure" to natural light and air.

Prison officials responded to the ruling by moving Anderson to the Sterling Correctional Facility, where his recreation periods now take place in a narrow room with concrete walls that offers a small patch of meshed-in sky at its far end. Anderson, who's described the experience as "like being in a shoebox," is still battling DOC officials over whether they have properly complied with Jackson's orders in the case.

But moving Anderson hasn't done anything to correct the situation at CSP, the student lawyers maintain in their new complaint, brought on behalf of three current supermax inmates. The Anderson ruling "explicitly states that outdoor exercise at CSP was not in line with constitutional standards," reads a statement announcing the new lawsuit.

The new suit isn't seeking monetary damages, but rather a court order instructing prison officials to provide the "meaningful" exposure to fresh air and natural light that Jackson described in his ruling last year. "The Eighth Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons," Jackson wrote, "but it does forbid inhumane conditions."

From our prison archives: "Wardens told to stop sending mentally ill prisoners to solitary."

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