Solitary confinement reform bill draws unanimous support

Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colo. houses 953 male offenders.

Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colo. houses 953 male offenders.

DENVER — A proposal to keep inmates with mental health issues out of solitary confinement drew strong support at the Capitol on Monday.

Democrats and Republicans, the state Dept. of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union all came together in support of Senate Bill 64, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-0 vote.

No one showed up to testify against the proposal, which is another piece in an ongoing effort by the state to move away from a long-time policy of reliance on solitary confinement.

“Isolated confinement has a damaging impact on the health of anyone,” said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County, the bill’s sponsor.

Dept. of Corrections Deputy Director Kellie Wasko told lawmakers Monday that roughly a third of Colorado’s prison inmates have mental health issues, with about nine percent of them suffering from more acute mental health problems.

And, the average duration of an inmate’s stay in solitary confinement is 14 months.

“All experts agree isolated confinement should not extend over 30 days,” said Denise Maes with the ACLU. “Solitary confinement has been overused, misused and abused for years.”‘

In the last two years, Colorado has reduced the number of inmates in administrative segregation, or “Ad-Seg”, from around 1,500 to just 600 now.

That transformation was lead by former Corrections chief Tom Clements, who was gunned down last March by a recently paroled inmate straight out of Ad Seg, an ironic tragedy that only served to underline the need for the reforms he began.

“Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better,” wrote Rick Raemisch, Clements’ successor, in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about his own 24-hour experience in Ad Seg.

“When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform,” Raemisch concluded. “If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.”