Colorado Rights Blog

John Krieger By: John Krieger 2.23.2011

ACLU says: Solitary Confinement Not the Answer for Mental Illness

SB-176 was heard by the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee. It was significantly amended.

Click here to find links to both the original and amended version of the bill.

It would have taken steps to end the all-too-common practice of warehousing prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement. The bill would have required a mental health evaluation for prisoners before they are placed in solitary and permit such isolation only in extreme situations. It also would support mental and behavioral health alternatives to solitary confinement through cost-saving mechanisms and ensure that prisoners are reintegrated into the general prison population before their community release.

Only small portions still remain, included the cost-savings mechanism that allows inmates in solitary to earn time off for good behavior, just as all other prisoners are permitted to do. Those saving are still to be spent on mental and behavioral health alternatives to solitary.

Learn more about solitary confinement at Colorado State Penitentary by watching segments from this National Geographic special.



SB 176 introduced by Senator Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) and Representative Claire Levy (D-Boulder), is a response to the growing number of inmates in Colorado prisons who’ve been diagnosed as mentally ill or developmentally disabled – and the staggering cost of using solitary confinement, rather than mental or behavioral health alternatives, as the default placement without regard to medical needs, institutional security, or prisoner and public safety.

“What we get from continuing the policy of placing prisoners with mental health issues or developmental disabilities in solitary confinement is increased costs for incarceration, increased recidivism rates and reduced public safety,” said Senator Carroll. “Especially in tough economic times, we can do better by using cost-saving mental health evaluation and treatment options rather than budget-busting solitary confinement.”

Currently, 37% of those in solitary confinement are prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities – up from 15% just a decade ago. Those confined to solitary in Colorado (more than 1,400 inmates) spend 23 hours a day in isolation, for 16 months on average, at an increased additional cost of from $14,933 to $21,485 per year, per inmate.

“Colorado cannot afford business as usual in its prison system,” said Representative Levy. “We must use science and behavioral health research to get a better result from costly imprisonment. Solitary confinement is the harshest and most expensive option. It should be used sparingly and only with appropriate limitations so prisoners with mental illness don’t become more ill and aren’t made more dangerous.”

Solitary confinement, said Terri Hurst, Director of Public Policy at the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, is not only costly, it’s dangerous to prisoner health and the public good. “It’s important that offenders with mental health issues be provided treatment services as to not exacerbate their health status. Solitary confinement has been shown to worsen or lead to the onset of mental health disorders and should not be used as an alternative to treatment. Providing treatment services both inside correctional facilities as well as in the community, improves behavioral health outcomes.”

Jessie Ulibarri, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado, said SB 176 promotes the shared goals of restoring those released from prison to productive roles in society. “By undermining the innate human need for social interaction, solitary confinement works against our goals as a society. Currently 41% of inmates in solitary confinement are released directly from their cell to the street — a dangerous practice — without time to readjust to human interaction while still under supervision. What we want are people ready to fully integrate back into their communities; not people who are released from solitary confinement and led directly to the prison gate, only destined to return again.”



  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.

  • Tuesday Olson knew her pregnancy was in trouble and tried to access hospital care as soon as possible. But there was a problem: she was in jail. This is her story.
  • It’s time to end the death penalty in Colorado. Family members who lost loved ones to murder speak out against an unjust and broken system.