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Solitary confinement: Inside bill to limit isolation of mentally ill prisoners

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In January, Colorado Department of Corrections chief Rick Raemisch drew headlines when he sent himself to the hole for twenty hours, so he could get some idea of what it's like for prisoners serving time in solitary confinement. Raemisch believes that isolation cells are overused in the state prison system, particularly for mentally ill inmates -- and now a bill making its way through the state legislature aims to fix that.

Senate Bill 64, which sailed through the state Senate and is now making its way to the House floor, calls for a review of the DOC's administrative segregation population within ninety days of its passage, as well as the removal of inmates identified as seriously mentally ill to "appropriate housing that does not include long-term isolated confinement." Sponsored by Democrats Jessie Ulibarri and Lucia Guzman, the bill signals a dramatic turnaround from Colorado's heavy reliance on solitary over much of the past decade to handle its "problem" inmates, regardless of the causes of their behavior. Just four years ago the DOC was placing prisoners in solitary at a rate that was more than triple the national average and drawing heat from the ACLU and national corrections reform groups for the practice.

Reducing the system's use of ad-seg was a priority of Raemisch's predecessor, Tom Clements -- who was murdered by parole absconder Evan Ebel shortly after Ebel was released directly from isolation. Raemisch has carried on Clements's mission, slashing the percentage of the prison population in ad-seg by half from what it was in 2010 -- and claiming, in a New York Times op/ed piece, to have trimmed the number of mentally ill inmates in solitary to the single digits.

Still, Senate Bill 64 may be the most significant step yet. For one thing, it represents a move beyond lawmakers' traditional reluctance to put limits on the degree and type of punishment the prison system can dole out; previous attempts in that direction have fizzled over arguments that corrections -- and psychological torture, presumably -- is best left to the "experts." And it sets up a rational process for review of the system's most damaged offenders, which could ultimately aid notorious cases such as Troy Anderson and Sam Mandez.

The bill is far from perfect. As ACLU of Colorado public policy director Denise Maes pointed out in her testimony Tuesday, the legislation lacks a clear definition of what "serious mental illness" means within the DOC -- some of the dramatic reduction in numbers of mentally ill in solitary may, in fact, have come from simply changing how you define mental illness -- or what "exigent circumstances" might justify keeping the most violent cases in lockdown.

But it's a major step beyond the throw-away-the-key approach the DOC was taking not so very long ago.

More from our Prison Life archive circa February 24: "Rick Raemisch, prison chief, goes to solitary -- for twenty hours."

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