Colorado Rights Blog

ACLU of Colorado By: ACLU of Colorado 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.”



  • Cedric Watkins is a father, uncle, entrepreneur-in-training, and a vital community pillar for many others. While behind bars, he has tirelessly devoted himself to serving his peers and his community. He developed gang disaffiliation programs for other incarcerated individuals and is currently involved with Defy Ventures. He sends letters and calls his daughter as much as he can.

    Cedric is currently in prison at Sterling Correctional Facility. He was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping, theft and sentenced to 80 years; no one was seriously injured or killed. For comparison, a person convicted of second-degree murder in Colorado faces a maximum sentence of 48 years. Cedric has already served 20 years and has fully rehabilitated during that time.

    It’s time to bring Cedric home: Redemption is real. Clemency is compassion.

  • On November 21, 2016, 13 Aurora police officers responded to a simple noise complaint at Alberto Torres’s home. As happens all too often, Aurora police officers escalated this minor issue into a brutal affair. They beat Mr. Torres solely because he delayed exiting his garage to ask his wife to interpret for him. With that beating, the lives of Mr. Torres and every member of his family were changed and he has yet to recover. ACLU of Colorado fought to obtain justice for Mr. Torres, and Aurora has now paid him $285,000. But money is not justice, and the brutality of the Aurora Police Department against people of color has continued unabated.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Imagine, if instead of 13 officers being dispatched to Mr. Torres’s home for a noise complaint, the City of Aurora sent a civilian-led response team to check on his welfare and ask that he and his friends lower their sound, resulting in a non-violent solution to a minor issue?

    ACLU Settles Case With Aurora After Police Brutalize and Unlawfully Arrest Alberto Torres

  • Hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment that together, we can create a more perfect union. We won’t rest until we fulfill the promise of equal rights for ALL people in the United States.

    Join us in our fight to fulfill this promise and move forward with hope by donating to the ACLU of Colorado. Your donation supports the ACLU’s strengths that make our work effective and collaborative.

    Donate now at

  • 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.