Governor John Hickenlooper recently signed a bill into law that prohibits the state Department of Corrections from putting inmates who are diagnosed with mental illness into long-term solitary confinement. Only under very specific circumstances can solitary confinement occur if a patient has been diagnosed with a mental illness. At the time the bill was signed into law it only affected one inmate in the Colorado corrections system. However, it means future inmates with mental illness will be protected from this type of punishment.
The bill was created in response to an event that occurred in 2013, after an inmate who spent much of his eight year prison term in solitary confinement following his release gunned down the former state Corrections Director Tom Clements. The tragedy caused those in the Department of Corrections to take a look at the mental health impact of solitary and determine if it caused more harm than good for those already suffering from mental illness. The belief is someone who is mentally ill might act out and be unable to control his behavior and time in solitary will aggravate this risk. Many believe that treatment would be more effective than punishment when an incident occurs in prison.
Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the sponsor of the recently passed bill, spoke on the issue, “”The tragedy of (Clements’) death was an example of why the policy wasn’t working. We were warehousing people with serious mental health issues in long-term isolated confinement, then we were dropping them off back in the community with no transition back to human contact, no mental health care, and it’s incredibly dangerous.”
Corrections Director Experiments with Time in Solitary
Prior to his murder, Clements had limited solitary confinement. His replacement, Rick Raemisch, has continued the effort. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement decreased from 140 to eight during the year preceding Clement’s death and had dropped to just one by the time the bill was passed. Raemisch, in an effort to understand the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners, spent 20 hours alone in a solitary cell. He described his experience in a letter to the New York Times in February as having left him feeling “twitchy and paranoid.”
In recent years, lawmakers have expressed concerns that inmates released directly into communities following long sentences in solitary confinement pose a greater threat to society than those who spent their prison sentences in general population. Colorado is not alone in its efforts to evaluate the prison system’s use of solitary confinement. Nevada and Texas both enacted efforts in the last year to study the effects of solitary on prisoners. Maine, California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have efforts underway to reduce the use of solitary in their systems. New York had already passed limits on solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates and further efforts continue to re-evaluate its use in general.