CO Lawmaker Seeks an End to Indefinite Solitary Confinement for Mentally Ill

Civil rights activists are pushing Colorado to stop warehousing seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.

At the urging of the ACLU’s state chapter, Senator Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County, is sponsoring a bill to find alternatives to the use of so-called administrative segregation for prisoners who have been diagnosed with one of a wide array of serious psychological disorders. The group is yet to find a sponsor in the House.

Ulibarri notes that it costs about twice as much to house a prisoner in solitary confinement than in general population. “Ad-seg,” he says, too often is used for prisoners who pose no threat to the institution or guards.

“It doesn’t help them at all. It hurts, them,” he said. “In Colorado, by using solitary confinement as the default for mentally ill prisoners, we’re doing the least safe thing for the most amount of money.

“The case of Evan Ebel and Tom Clements is the most extreme example of that.”

Ulibarri expects to introduce his bill in January, a year after Ebel was released from long-term isolation without mental health services. Two months after his release, Ebel gunned down state corrections chief Tom Clements.

“It doesn’t help them at all. It hurts, them. We’re using solitary confinement as the default for mentally ill prisoners, which is doing the least safe thing for the most amount of money.”

Ebel, 28, had been sentenced for robbery and then for assaulting a prison guard. Ebel served years alone, 23 hours a day, in a cell the size of a king-sized mattress. Like other inmates in isolation, he spent the 24th hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Such conditions afford prisoners virtually no human contact other than with guards passing food and mail through a slot in their doors. Having concluded that his years in isolation ruined him emotionally, he repeatedly warned corrections officials that he was too dangerous to be let back onto the streets. As his release date neared, he wrote formal grievances saying he wasn’t psychologically ready to walk free.

“Do you have an obligation to the public to re-acclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?” Ebel asked in three grievances to the state, each almost word for word, filed in the months before his release in January.

Documents obtained by The Colorado Independent show Ebel’s grievances went virtually ignored by the Corrections Department.

Ebel murdered Denver pizza delivery driver Nathan Leon and Clements in March, then was fatally shot by Texas police after a chase and shootout.

“Evan Ebel was exactly what Tom warned us about every single day,” Roxane White, chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper, told The Independent in July.

Clements’ killing shook Hickenlooper’s administration, the prison system and many admirers, including longtime critics of the Corrections Department. Clements was a reformer who made lowering the number of prisoners in solitary confinement a high priority. Also at the top of his agenda was a plan to remove mentally ill prisoners from “administrative segregation” into what he called a Residential Treatment Program that was supposed to offer the kind of human contact experts say inmates need before being released.

In slightly more than two years heading the department, Clements managed to cut the use of isolation by more than 40 percent. That effort was still in progress when he was killed.

Since his death, watchdogs have complained that the Residential Treatment Program (RTP) isn’t providing the rehabilitation mentally ill prisoners need and that Clements intended. In some cases, participants are undergoing therapy sessions over computer monitors or call boxes on their walls.

“Our fear is that if they don’t call it ad seg and they just put them in something else that looks like ad seg,” says Denise Maes, the ACLU’s public policy director. “The information that we’re getting is that RTP looks very much like ad seg.”

According to an ACLU report in July, the proportion of prisoners in solitary confinement with significant mental health needs has increased even though the overall number of prisoners in isolation has dropped. The report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, chronicles cases of inmates in psychotic, violent states, banging their heads against the walls, eating their feces and attempting suicide.

There are currently 651 men and 11 women being housed in solitary confinement in Colorado. Many aren’t getting adequate treatment and rehabilitation, critics say. Citing study after study showing that prolonged isolation causes a risk of — or exacerbates — mental illness, watchdogs are calling for more therapy, activities and human interaction for mentally ill prisoners who have long been isolated.

Under Ulibarri’s bill, prisoners would be exempted from ad-seg if they’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, major depression, delusional or bipolar disorders, tendencies toward self-harm or suicide, substantially deteriorated mental or emotional states and other impairments.

Officially, the prison system is staying neutral about the measure.

“The Colorado Department of Corrections looks forward to the continued dialogue with lawmakers to develop and implement new legislation. Until we see the proposed bill it wouldn’t be prudent to comment,” department spokesman Roger Hudson said.

Behind the scenes, Rick Raemisch — whom Hickenlooper appointed to lead the department after Clements’ death — is working on a draft bill with Ulibarri and the ACLU. Raemisch spent most of his career in Wisconsin where, in 2001, a federal court ordered the state to remove seriously mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement. He has more experience than most state corrections chiefs transitioning away from “ad-seg.”

Solitary confinement began as social experiment in the 19th century as a way to promote reflection and redemption among criminals. It was largely abandoned by the early 20th century after prominent thinkers and the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the practice to be torturous.

The practice resurfaced as a prison management tool starting in the tough-on-crime Reagan era. Colorado, like dozens of states throughout the nation, built supermax prisons for inmates deemed to be the worst of the worst, meaning the most violent and threatening to guards and other prisoners. But Colorado’s supermaxes, like those in several other states, were overbuilt. The Corrections Department ultimately filled the high-security cells, not just with the most dangerous prisoners, but also the gang leaders, jailhouse lawyers and inmates considered not compliant because they’re loud, delusional, agitated or depressed. Some entered the system with mental illnesses. Some developed disorders after years of sensory deprivation, loneliness and boredom in solitary confinement

Clements closed Colorado State Penitentiary II, the state’s brand new, supermax – exclusively designed for isolation – soon after taking office.

Raemisch, during a joint Judiciary hearing in September, called solitary confinement outdated and said he believes he’ll see an end to the practice in the next decade.

So far, the ACLU boasts support for its bill from the Mental Health Corporation of America and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The group plans an event October 29 to screen “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” a documentary about the psychological effects of solitary confinement. Organizers are hoping to pack the Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center with lawmakers to build support for Ulibarri’s bill.

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