Film and TV

Sam Mandez: Film exposes Colorado's overuse of isolation cells

Shortly after his arrival in the Colorado prison system, a mentally stable teenager named Sam Mandez landed in solitary confinement for a series of minor rules infractions. He soon began to experience auditory hallucinations and other signs of mental illness, and his erratic behavior made it impossible for him to "follow the program" and get back in general population. Sixteen years later and still in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, the 35-year-old Mandez is the deeply delusional star of a startling new documentary about the state's overuse of solitary confinement.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Story of Sam Mandez, a twenty-minute film produced by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, depicts one inmate's descent into madness and the penal system's crazy reliance on "administrative segregation" to manage a wide range of behavior issues. A screening at Su Teatro Tuesday night was followed by a panel discussion on the prevalence of mentally ill prisoners in Colorado's lockdown units -- and the kickoff of an ACLU campaign to move such prisoners out of isolation and into treatment.

"Solitary confinement is overused," declared David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "It has become the default way of dealing with difficult prisoners."

Nationally, more than 80,000 prisoners are in some form of solitary and have extremely limited contact with other inmates or staff, little access to outdoor exercise of any kind, and some degree of sensory deprivation. Studies have consistently shown that such conditions can increase depression, paranoia and anxiety among even healthy prisoners and severely exacerbate preexisting mental illness. Colorado's tendency to go supermax on problem cases is particularly acute; according to Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado, the state uses "ad-seg" twice as often on its inmate population as the national average.

Wallace told last night's audience that her organization had been making progress working on the problem with Colorado Department of Corrections director Tom Clements before his murder by a parolee (who'd spent years in solitary) last March. Clements managed to reduce the number of DOC inmates in solitary by 40 percent in two years. But mental health treatment programs are still badly understaffed, Wallace noted, with heavy turnover and more reliance on medications than actual therapy to "manage" severe mental illness. (Clements' successor, Rick Raemisch, attended the screening but didn't join in the discussion.)

Overall reduction of the ad-seg population hasn't done much to improve the situation for Mandez, who speaks matter-of-factly on camera about having won boxing titles and speaking to nonexistent women. His attorneys say he's convinced he was a Green Beret when he was twelve years old and that he's married to a daughter of Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman. The film, which will eventually make its way to the local ACLU's website, is oddly coy about Mandez's original offense -- he was convicted of felony murder and is serving life without parole for a crime that occurred when he was fourteen, a homicide his attorneys say he didn't commit -- but makes it abundantly clear that he's been largely ignored by mental health providers since he was placed in solitary. Although professionals retained by his attorneys discuss in detail his delusional behavior and "destabilized sense of self" as a result of years of isolation, the DOC still hasn't officially diagnosed him as mentally ill.

Mandez attorney Simmi Baer told the audience that her client was able to see the film for the first time earlier that day. "He did tell us this is not the first Hollywood film he's been in," she said.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Tom Clements: Murdered prison chief seen in new video urging drug-law reform."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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