The physical details of a person’s daily experience in isolated confinement is worth examining. The cells are a bit bigger than a king sized bed and the offender spends 22 plus hours a day there. In this environment, you sleep, eat and defecate – one lives their 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. 30 days versus 14 months. Studies tell us that isolated inmates are 7 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 Director Raemisch himself tells us, solitary confinement has been overused, misused and abused for years. Thankfully, more attention has recently been brought to this serious practice, and there has been greater movement toward questioning its wisdom. The ACLU has proudly stood at the forefront of this movement, along with many other notable groups and individuals. This issue is important.
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% and Colorado sits at 3.5%, although that number fluctuates quite a bit.
Today’s bill addresses one aspect of solitary confinement—the placement of offenders with a serious mental illness in such conditions. The bill before you, thankfully, prohibits the placement of offenders with SMI in long-term isolated confinement. This form of confinement will only render one more seriously mentally ill. I have often said that if you weren’t mentally ill when go into solitary, you sure will be coming out.
In Colorado, 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 and Deputy Director Wasko, many prisoners with SMI have been transferred out of what CDOC terms “administrative segregation” and into a treatment program, and some actually 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 SMI, 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 an important way: the bill lacks the definition of key terms—SMI, long term isolated confinement and the term “exigent circumstances.” CDOC resisted defining those terms in legislation, feeling that such codification would interfere too much in CDOC operations and deny them the flexibility they feel they need. Rather than codifying these terms, as of April 1, 2014, CDOC implemented new policies that establish a treatment program. The policies CDOC has recently implemented are crucial to this bill’s success.
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 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’s 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.
We commend Director Raemisch for his work on solitary confinement and for his willingness to speak about its abuses in the public domain. He has taken his message to these halls and to the hall of the U.S. Congress. Since early 2011, when Tom Clements was Director, we have seen a sea of change at CDOC. And Director 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.
SB 64 is but one small step. I hope you’ll take it and vote in its favor.