by Rick Raemisch, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Corrections
In 2011 my predecessor, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements, was hired and began reforms in the use/misuse of solitary confinement. At that time 1,500 inmates, almost seven percent of Colorado inmates, were in solitary confinement. Many of them were held in these cells 23 hours per day for years. Each year 40 percent of those in solitary were released directly from solitary to the community. When I started with the Department, I heard stories of correctional officers removing an inmate from solitary in leg irons and handcuffs, placing him on a public bus, removing the shackles and then leaving him alone on the bus with the public. Ironically, in 2013 Mr. Clements was assassinated by a former inmate who had spent seven years in solitary and was then released directly to the community.
I was hired by Governor John Hickenlooper to continue and complete the reforms Mr. Clements had started. We initiated aggressive programs to decrease the use of solitary confinement. We felt that we had failed in our mission. The use of solitary confinement, particularly for non-violent inmates, was primarily to run a more efficient institution. That is a noble goal, but not our mission. Our mission is public safety, and by the overuse of solitary, particularly the practice of releasing individuals directly from solitary to the community, we were releasing people worse than when they entered prison. I believe that the use of solitary does not solve problems—it merely suspends them. I also believe that long-term solitary multiplies mental illness and manufactures disruptive behavior. Now, our reforms have proven that the use of solitary confinement can be extremely decreased and, for the most part, used only for the violent offender.
Currently, we have approximately 150 inmates in what we now call restrictive housing – less than one percent of our population – and those individuals know when they are getting out. In the past, an inmate could be placed in solitary for an indeterminate amount of time. They had to earn their way out by means of graduating to various levels. Often times if they acted up their time started over and they could spend years in solitary. Today, the maximum amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary is one year, and that is only for the most violent offenders.