Colorado’s prisons chief wants to limit solitary confinement

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Exercise cellIt’s been nearly a year since Tom Clements, then the head of Colorado’s prisons, was murdered, allegedly by a former inmate. Rick Raemisch, the man who succeeded Clements, is determined to continue efforts Clements started to reform the prison system.

As head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements began reducing the number of inmates in solitary confinement. He started that work shortly after he began the job in 2011, and during his tenure, the number of inmates housed in solitary confinement dropped 50 percent, from a high of about 1,500 inmates.

Since Raemisch took the job last summer, he’s further reduced the numbers. Today, less than 600 inmates are in administrative segregation, the technical term for solitary confinement.

Raemisch received national attention recently for an opinion piece he wrote in the New York Times about spending a night in an administrative segregation cell. He says he did it to get a sense of what the experience was like for inmates.

Raemisch says while the 20 hours he spent in the cell were nothing compared to what inmates spend, he was surprised at the effect it had on him. For example, he says he felt paronoid and lost track of time.

“It didn’t take long before I felt like I had absolutely run out of things to do, which was nothing. There was nothing to do,” Raemisch says. “So, you find yourself gravitating towards the small window in the steel door and look out and see if you can see anything.”

Inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours alone in a cell each day. They have an hour a day to shower and exercise in a neighboring cell. Meals are given to them through a slot in the door and they have little outside contact.

Raemisch says he hopes to continue reducing the number of inmates in administrative segregation by moving mentally ill inmates into treatment and easing others into the prison’s general population. When asked how many inmates will remain in administrative segregation, Raemish says he isn’t sure.

“Well, ideally it should be zero,” Raemisch says. "Is that possible? You know, I don’t think so.”

Raemish says he fears there will always be a small number of inmates who are too dangerous to live in the general prison population. Or, he says, if they weren’t extremely dangerous before they were put in administrative segregation, the experience could make them that way.

That could have been the case for the man who murdered Clements. Evan Ebel, who was on parole at the time of the murder, spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement. Ebel allegedly shot the former prisons chief at his home in Monument, Colo., south of Denver. He was later killed in a shootout with police in Texas.

Ebel had been out of prison for just a couple of months when he allegedly killed Clements. Before the incident, he had complained about the damaging effects of isolation and his father, a Boulder attorney, had testified before the state legislature about his concerns that solitary confinement had harmed his son's mental state.

Given what happened to his predecessor, Raemisch has a full-time security detail to ensure his safety. He says a lot of people ask him why he decided to take the job.

“This sounds corny but to me it feels like I’m in the right place at the right time,” Raemisch says. “Like I’m supposed to be here.”

And for this week, at least, Raemisch says he plans to stick around.