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Mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement: New bill seeks to stop the madness

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Roughly four out of every ten prisoners in solitary confinement in Colorado is either developmentally disabled or mentally ill, a figure that's been rising steadily over the past decade. Senate Bill 176, headed for a statehouse committee review later this week, seeks to drastically reduce that number -- and slash prison costs in the bargain.

It costs between $15,000 and $21,500 more per year to house an inmate in 23-hour lockdown than in the general prison population. But that's only part of the staggering price of warehousing prisoners with mental health needs in supermax cells, according to the bill's Democrat sponsors, state senator Morgan Carroll (Aurora) and state representative Claire Levy (Boulder). The current path just leads to "increased costs for incarceration, increased recidivism rates and reduced public safety," Carroll says.

SB 176 would require prisoners to undergo a mental evaluation before placement in solitary confinement; those deemed seriously mentally ill couldn't be placed there. Prisoners in lockdown would undergo monthly mental health assessments -- much more frequently than in the current system. (See my feature "Head Games" for some inmate accounts of how little contact with mental health professionals they have in the Colorado State Penitentiary.)

The bill also sets an accelerated schedule for prisoners in solitary to be returned to general population -- particularly if they're coming up for release. At present, more than 40 percent of the "administrative segregation" population goes straight from a solitary cell to the street, a situation that often leads to parole failures and new crimes.

The Colorado Department of Corrections already has a special prison for the mentally ill, San Carlos, but it's full -- with a long waiting list. While the state has now partially opened a second supermax, no additional facilities dedicated to the mentally ill are planned. Indeed, the DOC's own study of its supermax population concluded that solitary confinement did no harm and might even have short-term psychological benefits. But that report has been blasted by experts in the field as deeply flawed.

In an era of severe budget-cutting, can DOC officials afford to do anything with disruptive, mentally ill prisoners besides lock them down? They can't afford not to, says Rosemary Harris Lytle of the ACLU of Colorado, which is championing the bill. "This is the most expensive form of confinement there is," she notes. "Doing the proper evaluations and making other placement available will greatly reduce costs."

For more on mental illness in the state prison system, visit our Crime and Punishment archive.

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