Sam Mandez, a 41-year-old who has spent nearly all of his adult life in prison, including more than seventeen consecutive years in solitary confinement, is likely to be released in the next few years.
Today, September 12, Judge Julie Hoskins resentenced the Greeley native to thirty years in prison, a huge reduction from his original sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
With a quiver in her voice and tears in her eyes at the Weld County District Court, Hoskins noted Mandez's "incredible capacity for change" and cited his extensive time spent in a seven-by-thirteen-foot solitary confinement cell as a mitigating factor in the resentencing.
In 1996, Mandez was sentenced to automatic life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a felony-murder charge stemming from his involvement in a robbery that led to a woman's death. Mandez, who was fourteen at the time of the crime, broke a window and stood as lookout, which was enough at the time for a jury to be forced into giving him such a serious sentence. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life imprisonment without parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles to be unconstitutional, which served as grounds for Mandez's resentencing request.
During his first year in prison, at the age of nineteen, Mandez was sent into solitary confinement for non-violent, non-criminal violations of prison rules, according to his lawyers; he spent the next seventeen-plus years there. Mandez's mental health was good when he went in, but he descended into serious mental illness, developing schizophrenia and hearing voices in his head. His lawyers say that he didn't receive the mental health assistance that he should have been offered, and that his condition consistently worsened.
The ACLU of Colorado picked up Mandez's case and started advocating on his behalf to get him out of solitary confinement. The organization released a documentary in October 2013 called Out of Sight; Out of Mind, the Story of Sam Mandez, which shows Mandez's decline from a promising young man to a severely mentally ill inmate.
Rick Raemisch, who was taking over as executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections at the time, attended the first screening of the film, showed the movie to his staff, and recommended the movie during testimony he gave before state legislators.
"Sam's story did indeed resonate," Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado, wrote to Judge Hoskins on September 10.
After the release of the film, the Department of Corrections issued a policy directive that prisoners with serious mental illness should not be kept in solitary confinement long-term; it eventually became law.
In the years since Raemisch first stepped into office, the Department of Corrections has significantly lowered its population of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. In 2017, the department mandated that all prisoners be offered a minimum of four hours outside of a cell each day.
"With these reforms, Colorado is considered a national leader in humanely and safely reducing the use of solitary confinement in prisons," Wallace wrote in the same letter. "Sam deserves credit for playing a meaningful role in pushing for these reforms. Telling his story was an act of bravery, and — in my view — the state of Colorado is indebted to him for it."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Although Mandez struggled for years with mental illness, he left solitary confinement and has been healing his mind.
Wallace interviewed Mandez a few weeks ago and wrote about her experience. "I almost didn't recognize the man before me. He was healthy; he was in touch with his mind, body and spirit; he was optimistic."
Mandez now has a job in prison and plans to restart his life when he is released.
"Sam is the most salient reminder I have that human beings can be resilient and capable of growth if given just the smallest chance," Wallace wrote.