One year ago, Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado’s prisons, was murdered at his home in Monument, Colo., by parolee Evan Ebel. The murder has led to tighter parole restrictions which, in turn, have caused the prison population to creep up.
At the same time, many of Clements' initiatives, like reducing the number of inmates in solitary confinement, continue under his successor Rick Raemisch. Raemisch has been vocal about the overuse of isolation to control inmates.
Since the murder, the prison population has jumped for the first time in four years by nearly 100 inmates. Officials say some of the increase has to do with fewer inmates being granted parole. In contrast, the number of inmates held in solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, has continued to decline from a high of about 1,500 to under 600 today.
In March of 2013, Ebel removed his ankle bracelet, killed pizza deliveryman Nathan Leon and stole his uniform. A few days later, on March 19, 2013, Ebel rang Clements’ doorbell and shot and killed the former prison director.
It took parole officers a few days before they began searching for Ebel and the incident raised questions about the slow response. Critics, along with several state officials, say those concerns have led to a more conservative approach to parole.
Even before Clements’ death, Christie Donner, Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, had been concerned about the number of parolees who were being sent back to prison for technical violations, which include things like failing to show up for a parole meeting or for drug treatment.
“The overhelming majority of people on parole who were revoked and re-incarcerated did not commit a new crime,” Donner says. “They were revoked for a technical violation and so those numbers are hugely influential in whether our prison population is going up or down.”
Tom Clements was also concerned about parolees going back to prison for these technical violations and had started efforts to improve parole supervision. Donner says while she understands that the Ebel case led to concerns about whether potentially dangerous parolees were being adequately supervised, she’s also concerned about the effect on the inmate population.
Solitary confinement is another story. Like Tom Clements, Rick Raemisch has voiced repeated concerns that isolation has been “over-used and abused” since he started as the head of the Department of Corrections this summer. He also says he believes it can lead to mental illness or exacerbate it.
Inmates in solitary confinement are held in a small cell 23 hours a day with an hour for a shower and exercise in a nearby cell.
Raemisch recently made national headlines for spending a night in solitary confinement, and described himself as starting to feel “paranoid” and losing all track of time.
Clements’ killer Evan Ebel had spent much of his eight years in prison in solitary confinement and had complained about its damaging effects. Raemisch says keeping people in isolation doesn’t bode well for their mental state, or the safety of citizens when inmates are released.
“People have somehow forgotten our mission," Raemisch says. "And the mission is to have a safe community. That’s what we do for a living…train and rehabilitate these individuals so that they can become law-abiding citizens.”
Officials are still investigating the Clements murder, even though Ebel was killed shortly after the murder in a shootout with police in Texas. The big question, they say, is whether Ebel acted alone or carried out the murder as part of a “hit” order by a prison gang known as the 211 Crew.