A study by researchers at the National Institute of Corrections has found that Colorado's approach to locking down its most unruly prisoners in 23-hour-a-day isolation is "basically sound" -- but could be used a lot less. Instead, even as the state's prison population is declining slightly, the use of "administrative segregation," or solitary confinement, continues to increase.
The Colorado Department of Corrections houses close to 1,500 prisoners in "ad-seg," about 7 percent of the entire state prison population. That's significantly above the national average of 2 percent or less -- and if you factor in the additional 670 prisoners who are in "punitive segregation" as a result of disciplinary actions, the CDOC figure is closer to 10 percent. And four out of ten of the prisoners in solitary have a diagnosed mental illness, roughly double the proportion in 1999. The state's heavy reliance on ad-seg, including building a second supermax prison to house the overload, has put Colorado in the center of a growing national controversy over whether isolating prisoners creates more problems in the long run.
NIC researchers James Austin and Emmitt Sparkman were invited by DOC to prepare an external review of its ad-seg policies and classification system. Among other points, the pair found that the decision to send prisoners to lockdown has little review by headquarters; that "there is considerable confusion in the operational memorandums and regulations on how the administrative segregation units are to function;" that the average length of stay in isolation is about two years; and that 40 percent of the ad-seg prisoners are released directly to the community from lockdown, with no time spent in general population first.
Austin and Sparkman urge the DOC to require a mental health review before a prisoner is placed in ad-seg and to simplify the programs and phases inmates are required to complete before returning to a less restrictive prison. Even modest administrative changes would "significantly reduce" the state's lockdown population, they claim, freeing up cells for other uses and saving the state money, since supermax prisons are more costly to operate than lower-security facilities.
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For more about the history of control units and supermax prisons in Colorado, check out our Crime and Punishment archive.