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Wardens told to stop sending mentally ill prisoners to solitary

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In what's being praised as a significant step toward reform, the Colorado Department of Corrections is now instructing staff to no longer consign mentally ill prisoners to administrative segregation. In a memo to prison wardens issued earlier this week, a DOC official explains that the "major mentally ill" must be sent to a residential treatment program rather than being punished with ad-seg for misbehavior. That's a sharp turnaround for the DOC, which has been criticized for using solitary confinement in recent years at a rate that's twice the national average.

"I am asking that, going forward, please ensure that your staff are aware that offenders with MMI [major mental illness] Qualifiers cannot be referred to Administrative Segregation placement," states interim director of prisons Lou Archuleta in the memo.

Approximately 40 percent of the state's prisoners in ad-seg, or 23-hour-a-day isolation, are either developmentally disabled or have received a diagnosis of serious mental illness.* Some, like Troy Anderson and Sam Mandez, have become the focal point of lawsuits and public attention because of their many years of being buried in supermax confinement and lack of treatment for chronic mental conditions.

DOC officials claim that they've greatly reduced the number of prisoners housed in ad-seg over the last two years, an effort that began under chief Tom Clements before his murder last spring. The memo won't immediately change anything for prisoners like Anderson and Mandez, but the ACLU of Colorado, which obtained the memo on Thursday, hailed the move as "an enormous step in the right direction." The organization has been pushing the DOC to further restrict its use of ad-seg and beef up its sputtering mental-health treatment resources.

"We remain concerned that the definition of major mental illness adopted by CDOC is too narrow," ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Wallace responded in a prepared statement, "and that there are still prisoners in administrative segregation who are seriously mentally ill and should not be placed in prolonged solitary confinement."

Read the full memo below.

* A clarification: The data on the number of ad-seg prisoners diagnosed with mental illness comes from 2011 data. In a conversation on December 17, DOC spokesman Roger Hudson stated that the number of offenders classified as having a "major mental illness" and housed in ad-seg is now down to eight in the entire state system -- a dramatic reduction from a year ago. Contrast this with an ACLU report released a few months ago, which notes that while the overall number of inmates in solitary confinement was declining, "prisoners with moderate to severe psychiatric needs now constitute a majority of those in administrative segregation."

Mental Health Qualifiers Memo

More from our Prison Life archive circa May: "Troy Anderson: Are prisoner's conditions worse since winning supermax lawsuit?"

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