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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Colorado's Prison Director Goes Solitary To Prompt Reform

By:  Timothy P. Flynn

One year ago today, a released inmate from the Colorado prison system stalked Tom Clements, the executive director of prisons, and shot him dead at point blank range in the front door of his home.  His replacement, Rick Raemisch, a former deputy sheriff and prosecutor from Wisconsin, has been on the job for only 7-months but has been making headlines for his progressive tactics.

Troubled like his predecessor was by the overuse of solitary confinement by prison administrators, Director Raemisch brought attention to the problem by doing a brief stint in solitary himself, and writing about his experience in a NYT Op Ed.  Colorado's new executive director of prisons was deeply troubled by Clemens' murder; he is also concerned that 97% of all inmates will one day be released into "the world".

As he explained in his Op Ed piece, Raemisch was charged by Colorado's Governor to address three prison objectives: a) eliminate administrative segregation for the mentally ill; b) address the problem of protracted assignment to solitary confinement [the Colorado average is 23-months @ 22-hours per day in the cell]; and c) avoiding release of inmates into the world directly from administrative segregation.

Colorado's prisons, like here in Michigan, New York and many other states, have become a dumping ground for the mentally ill.  In his Op Ed piece, Director Raemisch ruminates about his 20-hour stint in Ad Seg:
 First thing you notice is it's anything but quiet.  You're immersed in a drone of garbled noise- other inmates' blaring tvs, distant conversations, shouted arguments.  I couldn't make sense of any of it, and was left twitchy and paranoid.  I kept waiting for the lights to turn off to signal the end of the day.  But the lights did not shut off.  I began to count the small holes carved in the walls.  Tiny grooves made by inmates who'd chip away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.
Director Raemisch's point: solitary confinement, daunting even for a sound mind, has become a dumping ground for America's mentally ill; the "worst-of-the-worst".  Ironically, the gang member that shot Mr. Clements was a direct release from the Ad Seg unit of one of Colorado's prisons.

While Director Raemisch recognizes that inmates placed in Ad Seg units have committed serious crimes, often while in prison, he does not have a specific solution to the problem of the overuse of solitary confinement other than to administratively reduce the numbers, as his predecessor was in the process of doing.

Prison administrators use Ad Seg to control short-term problems.  But Director Raemisch is looking to the long game: he strives to reduce the number of direct releases from Ad Seg back to the world.

America has one of the highest proportions of incarcerated people in the world.  Therefore, unless the entire population of prison inmates is reduced, it is a very worthy goal to aid the inmates' reentry to society so that our societal cost of recidivism is also reduced.

It is obvious to us here at the Law Blogger that overuse of solitary confinement does not serve that end.

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