Rick Raemisch, prison chief, goes to solitary -- for twenty hours

Last month, Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, decided to get a taste of his own medicine. He cuffed up and shuffled in leg shackles to an administrative segregation cell, bereft of TV or books. Sitting in solitary, listening to the noise from other cells, soon got him feeling "twitchy and paranoid." Within a few hours he'd lost track of time and was wondering how long it would take until he lost his marbles. "I don't know, but I'm confident that it would be a battle I would lose," he wrote in an op-ed piece in Friday's New York Times.

At first glance, Raemisch's brief journey into the bowels of the prison system he runs may seem like a cringe-worthy stunt, more Undercover Boss than Brubaker -- not that much different from a bunch of society swells ponying up a fat charity donation for the privilege of staging a pajama party down at the new jail, before those nasty inmates stink the place up. One night in a tiny cell is a far cry from what federal prisoner Thomas Silverstein, the most isolated prisoner in America, has endured in three decades in solitary, a form of mental torture that he once described as "a slow constant peeling of the skin, stripping of the flesh, the nerve-wracking sound of water dripping from a leaky faucet in the still of the night while you're trying to sleep."

But give the chief some credit; as he acknowledges in his thoughtful Times piece, his twenty hours in lockdown was "practically a blink" compared to what ad-segged inmates go through: "On average, inmates who are sent to solitary in Colorado spend an average of 23 months there. Some spend twenty years."

Raemisch observes that solitary confinement has been overused in most states, including Colorado -- something that National Institute of Corrections researchers and ACLU lawyers have been saying for years. Both he and his predecessor, Tom Clements -- who was murdered by parole absconder Evan Ebel shortly after Ebel was released directly from isolation -- have made significant reductions in the number of ad-seg inmates in the DOC, a figure that's now less than half of what it was three years ago. And Raemisch claims that the number of "severely mentally ill inmates" in ad seg is now down to single digits.

That latter figure is a bit tricky, as we've noted elsewhere, because some inmates have never been officially diagnosed as mentally ill, even though they may have significant psychiatric needs that could be exacerbated by isolation. Still, Raemisch's effort represents a dramatic turnabout from where the system was heading just a few years ago. In his op-ed piece, he has this to say about Ebel: "Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better."

That's a very different tune from the position DOC adopted in 2010, when it released a report claiming that, contrary to most of the established research on the subject, prolonged stay in solitary confinement has no adverse mental health effects and might even produce "initial improvement in psychological well-being."

But then, in those days, DOC was trying to justify the cost of opening a second supermax. The new chief seems preoccupied with the outrageous idea that he can keep the public safer in the long term, not by locking down every management problem for years at a time, but by preparing them for eventual release. "Our job in corrections," he writes, "is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in."

More from our Follow That Story archive circa November 2011: "Solitary confinement: Isolating prisoners overused in Colorado, study suggests."

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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