Colorado Rights Blog


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ACLU Legal Advocacy Ends Unconstitutional Corporal Punishment in Colorado’s Prisons

In an announcement today, the ACLU of Colorado praised the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) for adopting a new Administrative Regulation—drafted after months of collaborative negotiation with ACLU attorneys—that puts a stop to a practice the ACLU had criticized as unconstitutional corporal punishment. The newly-revised regulation prohibits CDOC officials from chaining and shackling compliant prisoners for extended periods of time when those prisoners are safely locked alone inside maximum-security prison cells.

“Immobilizing chains and shackles are justified only when prison officials determine that an agitated prisoner is out of control and poses a physical threat to himself or others,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “These types of restraints, which are uncomfortable at best and often painful, should be applied only as long as necessary to bring the prisoner under control. When prisoners who no longer pose any threat of harm are chained and shackled for extended periods, the restraints are no longer justified—they serve only to impose physical discomfort and pain as punishment for the out-of-control episode that has already passed. Imposing pain as a punishment is corporal punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Silverstein noted the two most significant policy changes that CDOC agreed to include in its revised administrative regulation:

• Compliant prisoners who are locked inside a cell cannot be confined in immobilizing chains and shackles for more than two hours

• If prisoners who are locked within a cell are confined in immobilizing physical restraints for longer than two hours, a shift commander must regularly document the facts he believes justify the continued restraint.

“This policy change, and the training that will follow, curbs a practice that the ACLU criticized as unjustified corporal punishment, while also ensuring that CDOC’s security needs are fully met,” said C. Ray Drew, ACLU Executive Director. “But there is something else at work here. Because of ongoing collaborative work and negotiation between the ACLU and CDOC, this matter was resolved without litigation, at minimal cost to CDOC and the community as a whole. We look forward to continuing to work with CDOC to solve problems collaboratively.”

The practice CDOC agreed to modify came to the ACLU’s attention during its investigation of administrative segregation (long-term solitary confinement) earlier this year. In a letter to ACLU, a prisoner complained that he had been painfully restrained for eighteen hours after he was caught violating prison rules by “fishing”—casting a string outside his cell to retrieve a magazine being shared by another prisoner in solitary. When he declined to surrender his fishing line, prison guards in SWAT gear initiated a “cell extraction.”

They pumped pepper spray into the cell, removed the prisoner, stripped him to his underwear, and applied leg shackles, handcuffs, hip cuffs, and a tight belly chain. An additional crotch chain attached to the front of the belly chain, went through his crotch, and was attached to the belly chain behind his back. He was then placed into a bare “observation cell,” where he remained in restraints for eighteen hours.

“During those eighteen hours, the prisoner could not feed himself without assistance, could not defecate without assistance, and could not sit or lay down without extreme pain and discomfort,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Rebecca T. Wallace. “The in –cell restraints were unnecessary. While locked inside the maximum security prison cell, the prisoner complied fully with every order from the guards. He clearly posed no threat to himself or others. Under these circumstances, the painful, severely-confining restraints could have served only one purpose: to punish him physically for his past misconduct, in violation of the Constitution. ”

The ACLU’s investigation determined that this prisoner’s ordeal was not an isolated episode. CDOC documents confirmed reports from more than a dozen additional prisoners that they were removed from their cells and subjected to similar restraints, in individual observation cells, for more than twelve hours.

“Correctional professionals have long agreed that physical restraints should not be imposed as punishment,” Silverstein added. “Even when restraints may be justified at first, they can become punishment when the initial justification has passed. CDOC officials should be commended for being willing to hear the ACLU’s concerns and change a troubling practice.”


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