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A Prison Guard's Take on Solitary Confinement and Who Belongs There

Three years ago, Colorado's state prison system kept nearly 10 percent of its population held in solitary confinement, a rate that was about seven times the national average. That excessive use began to change under Department of Corrections executive director Tom Clements, until his 2013 murder by Evan Ebel, an inmate who'd been released to the streets directly after years of solitary.

Clements' successor, Rick Raemisch, has made significant strides in further reducing the "administrative segregation" population, particularly for inmates who've been diagnosed as mentally ill, and pushing programs to prepare prisoners for release. The effort has drawn national attention, especially after Raemisch wrote a piece for the New York Times about spending twenty hours in solitary himself.

See also: Rick Raemisch, Prison Chief, Goes to Solitary -- For Twenty Hours

The experience of brief isolation, the chief wrote, soon had him feeling "twitchy and paranoid" and wondering how long it would take to lose his sanity: "Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in."

The DOC's change of direction in the use of solitary has drawn praise from the ACLU and prison reform groups. But it's also produced some grumbling within the ranks. As we've previously reported, some prisoners claim that the "residential treatment programs" in which mentally ill prisoners are now being placed aren't much different from solitary confinement. And some correctional officers believe moving prisoners rapidly out of ad-seg has created more management problems in general population and taken away a basic deterrent they've used to try to control the behavior of the most disruptive inmates.

A recent anonymous letter sent to Westword reflects the latter point of view. The author, who claims to be a correctional officer at the state supermax and prefers to be known as "CO John Smith," decided to investigate for himself what it might be like to spend twenty hours in the hole. Here's his account, edited for length:

I read the letter written by Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, that was published in the New York Times in February 2014. As a correctional officer, assigned to the Colorado State Penitentiary, I stewed on this letter for months. During this time, I really tried to see the environment from his point of view. Then I launched my plan. With the help of my co-workers, I, too, would spend 20 hours inside a cell in the Colorado State Penitentiary.

I made modifications to my appearance and dressed in an inmate's uniform. I was handcuffed by officers, and then escorted to a cell in a part of the institution that was run by employees who would not recognize me. After the door closed behind me and my handcuffs were removed, I was left alone with my mesh bag of toiletries and bedding. I was very familiar with the noises on the other side of the door. I knew what it was like to walk those tiers, check the cells, and check the day room area, but now, from this side of the door, the sounds were somewhat different.

I didn't have any personal property and sat in that cell with only a sink, toilet and bed. I could hear inmates talking and the sounds from their TVs. When the main lights in the pod were turned off, I fell into a fitful sleep. Every time a toilet flushed or an officer could be heard making the cell checks, I stirred. As I stirred I thought, is this how a person is driven mad? Is living in this type of environment as inhumane as Raemisch wrote in his letter?

But then I recalled the many nights that I have stayed in a hotel. I have never been able to get a good night's sleep that first night in a different environment. I remember hearing the night sounds of toilets flushing and elevators working during my most recent hotel stay. Now I was surrounded by people who had been placed in the most secure prison in Colorado for doing or orchestrating horrible acts of violence against others. Does the fact that I cannot sleep well mean that I am on the verge of losing my mind?
Continue to read more from a prison guard's take on solitary confinement -- and who belongs there.
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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

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