More than a third of the people serving in solitary confinement in Colorado prisons have mental health problems and some lawmakers are concerned the punishment is making those problems worse. But a bill to address that situation has strong opposition from the Department of Corrections.
The legislation would require the Department of Corrections to consider other options for mentally ill prisoners before sending them to solitary confinement, and to more closely monitor the mental health of everyone in solitary.
At the bill's first hearing yesterday, Jack Ebel testified that his son has spent years in solitary confinement, and now has trouble communicating during visits.
EBEL: "He'll rant a little bit. He'll stammer. He'll be frustrated that he can't find the words. And I let him get it out, and eventually, because I'm his father, he will talk to me. And I'm convinced, if any of the rest of you were to go talk to him, he wouldn't be able to talk to you."
The legislation would also require that prisoners spend some time outside of solitary before leaving prison. Right now, more than forty percent are released straight from solitary to the outside. Democratic Senator Morgan Carroll of Aurora is the bill's sponsor. She says those offenders are more likely to commit new crimes.
CARROLL: "If we don't think these folks are safe to transition back into general prison population, you really gotta wonder how safe they are to go back into society."
There's research showing that solitary confinement can damage people psychologically, although a study conducted by the Department of Corrections on Colorado prisoners found the opposite. DOC officials argue there are enough protections for mentally ill prisoners already in place and this legislation would make it harder for them to manage inmates. Joanie Shoemaker runs clinical services in the prison system.
SHOEMAKER: "While we try to be concerned about developmentally disabled or mentally offenders, behavior still has to have a consequence and we have to have a safe environment in which all offenders can function in."
Prison officials also questioned how the system could afford the new mental health services for people in solitary. Bob Kahanic runs solitary hearings at the prison in Limon.
KAHANIC: "Right now with the budget cuts, you're basically having to rob Peter to pay Paul. And I don't know how they're going to get the resources to get that many more mental health clinicians and all that."
But Senator Carroll says her bill could save the system money in a couple ways. Solitary is the most expensive form of confinement in the system. This would allow time in solitary to count toward a prisoner's sentence, shortening their time behind bars. And it would keep some mentally ill prisoners out of solitary altogether.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony yesterday but won't vote until a later hearing. Carroll says she's working on amendments and trying to find a compromise that could get the Department of Corrections to drop its opposition to her bill.