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CO Prisons Continue to Warehouse Mentally Ill in Solitary Confinement

July 23, 2013

New ACLU report examines legal, moral, and fiscal implications of housing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement, urges CDOC chief Rick Raemisch to end the practice

DENVER – The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) continues to rely on long-term solitary confinement to manage mentally ill prisoners, often for months or even years, according to a new report released today by the ACLU of Colorado.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado’s continued warehousing of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement, draws on 18 months of research, including interviews with prisoners, analysis of CDOC data, site visits, and review of prisoner health files and finds that, while the overall number of prisoners held in solitary confinement has decreased in recent years, the proportion of those prisoners who suffer from mental illnesses has increased.

According to the report, more than half of the prisoners currently housed in long-term solitary confinement in Colorado have significant mental health needs.

“Warehousing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement is not only costly, cruel and unlawful, it puts the public at serious risk,” says ACLU staff attorney Rebecca Wallace, who drafted the report. “When mental illness goes untreated, or is made worse by solitary confinement, it can lead to criminal or antisocial actions once a prisoner is released, leaving the public to suffer the consequences.”

On any given day in 2012, between 537 and 686 mentally ill prisoners were held in solitary confinement in Colorado prisons. The average length of stay for mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement was 16 months.

Courts and psychiatrists agree that prolonged isolation poses a substantial risk of causing or exacerbating mental illness. The ACLU report chronicles instances of solitary confinement driving untreated mentally ill prisoners to a psychotic state, leading them to attempt suicide, attack others, eat their feces, or “bang their heads against the wall in an effort to drown out the voices in their heads.”

Under former Director Tom Clements, CDOC initiated the Residential Treatment Program (RTP) in early 2013 as a means of providing intensive mental health care to prisoners with the most significant mental health needs, but the ACLU found that seriously mentally ill prisoners are still being disproportionately housed in solitary confinement. As of last March, CDOC housed at least 87 “seriously mentally ill” prisoners in solitary confinement, the majority of whom had been living in isolation for more than a year.

“Courts are unanimous in their view that prolonged solitary confinement of seriously mentally ill prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution,” says Wallace.

In 2001, a federal court ordered the Wisconsin DOC to remove all prisoners with serious mental illness from the Supermax Correctional Institution. Incoming CDOC Director Rick Raemish led the Wisconsin DOC after the lawsuit settled while following a policy against confining seriously mentally ill prisoners in the supermax facility.

“Given Mr. Raemish’s successes during his tenure at the Wisconsin DOC, we are hopeful that he will bring to CDOC a true understanding that a state prison system can be managed safely and effectively without warehousing seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement,” says Wallace.

The report includes the following recommendations for CDOC and its incoming director:

(1) CDOC should bar seriously mentally ill prisoners from placement is prolonged solitary confinement.

(2) CDOC should adopt policies requiring mental health involvement in disciplinary and criminal charging decisions related to seriously mentally ill prisoners.

(3) All seriously mentally ill prisoners, including those at the lowest levels of the Residential Treatment Program (RTP), should be provided a minimum of 20 hours of out-of-cell time per week, including 10 hours of dedicated therapeutic time.

(4) The Residential Treatment Program should be fully staffed to provide out-of-cell therapeutic and non-therapeutic time. To accomplish this goal, CDOC must have the funding and the will to fill all mental health staff positions, particularly those of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses.

Click here to read the report.

Click for a fact sheet on the mentally ill in solitary confinement in Colorado.

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