Colorado Rights Blog


  • Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley spoke at the marriage equality rally on March 3rd

  • Leisel Kemp, whose brother Jason was killed by CSP after they entered his home without a warrant, spoke at the 2013 Bill of Rights Dinner about the ACLU’s legal advocacy on behalf of her family.

  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind is an original short film from the ACLU of Colorado about a man who has spent 17 years in solitary confinement and now suffers from debilitating mental illness.

Prepared Remarks of ACLU Public Policy Director Denise Maes on SB 14-064, concerning solitary confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness

Bill to be considered March 10, 2014 by the Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 pm MT

In isolated confinement, the cells are a bit bigger than a king sized bed.  A prisoner spends 22 hours a day in there.  In this environment, you sleep, eat and defecate – you live your entire daily life in that cell.

In Colorado, the average length of time one remains in solitary confinement is approximately 14 months.  All experts agree that long term isolation should not extend beyond 30 days.  So, for 14 months on average, prisoners are denied physical contact except for a guard placing shackles on them. Studies tell us that isolated inmates are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves than inmates in general population.

No one would disagree that solitary confinement is at times necessary to protect guards and prisoners from potentially dangerous prisoners.  However, as Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) Director Rick Raemisch himself tells us, solitary confinement has been overused, misused and abused for years.  Recently, more attention has been brought to this practice, with a greater movement questioning its wisdom.  Proudly, the ACLU has been at the forefront of this movement along with many other notable groups and individuals, some of whom you’ll hear from today.

Colorado has significantly reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement.  In just the past three years, we have seen a 60% reduction of prisoners in solitary confinement.   That is laudable – though we are keenly aware that Colorado remains above the national average in the percentage of prisoners in solitary confinement compared to the total number of prisoners.  The national average is 2%, Colorado sits at 3.5%.

Today’s bill addresses one aspect of solitary confinement – the placement of persons with a serious mental illness in such conditions.  The bill before you prohibits the placement of offenders with serious mental illness in long term isolated confinement.  This form of confinement will only render one more seriously mentally ill.

Offenders with a serious mental illness have been placed in solitary confinement for years with no road out.  We know that through the great work and leadership of Director Raemisch, many prisoners with serious mental illness have been transferred out of what CDOC terms “administrative segregation” and into a treatment program.  Some prisoners have been transferred back into general population.  What we have discovered, however, is that some prisoners in CDOC’s treatment program are living in conditions similar to – no, actually identical to solitary confinement.  That practice must end.

For persons with a serious mental illness, courts are unanimous in their conclusion.   Because isolation is so potentially damaging to the seriously mentally ill, every court to address the issue has ruled that isolated confinement violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the ACLU is here in support of this bill, I’ll be frank.  The bill falls short in many respects.  You will note that the bill lacks the definition of obvious terms – serious mental illness, long term isolated confinement, and the term “exigent circumstances.”  CDOC resisted defining those terms.  The bill also lacks a reporting mechanism to monitor CDOC’s progress in this area.  CDOC says it’s already part of its SMART Act obligation.  We hope you’ll hold them to that.  We have found resistance to defining key terms a bit baffling given that CDOC agrees that the use of long term isolated confinement is a bad practice and for those with a serious mental illness, it is unconstitutional.

We commend Director Raemisch for his work on solitary confinement and for his willingness to speak about its abuses in the public domain.  Since early 2011, when Tom Clements was CDOC’s Director, we have seen a sea of change.  And Mr. Raemisch’s challenge within CDOC cannot be underestimated.  Colorado’s historic reliance on solitary confinement has created a culture of punishment and this is counterproductive to the successful re-entry of today’s offenders.

Prohibiting the placement of offenders with a serious mental illness in solitary confinement is one step.  True reform can only come from focused care and proper mental health treatment, and that can only be provided with adequate mental health care professionals on a very regular basis.  That means group therapy and one-on-one time with a therapist.  That costs dollars and is no easy undertaking.  But it is critical. Humane treatment aimed at true rehabilitation is critical for all of us, because 97% of today’s prison population will be back in our communities and live as our neighbors.

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