The Post Editorials Moving beyond prison solitary
Itwasn’t so long ago that Colorado kept prisoners in solitary confinement— what the systemcalls administrative segregation— at amuch higher rate than most states.
By 2011, in fact, more than 1,500 prisoners in Colorado, or 7 percent of the total inmate population, were languishing in solitary.
By contrast, today that figure has shrunk to about 160, or less than 1 percent of the prison population, according to an encouraging report released the other day by the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Executive director Rick Raemisch and deputy director KellieWasco, who co-authored “Open the Door— Segregation Reform in Colorado,” admit there hasn’t been enough time for a full assessment of the new options to solitary, but say “the initial results are worth celebrating.” Indeed they are. Solitary wasn’t invented out of sadistic desire to inflict emotional damage on prisoners. It was created because some are dangerously violent toward other inmates and prison staff and need to be kept under tight control— which in Colorado meant 23 hours of cell time each day. Over the years, however, the use of solitary expanded as it came to be used to solve other problems, too, such as what to do with the seriously mental ill.
Nor was there any assurance a prisoner would ever emerge from solitary. As the report notes, as recently as 2013, “There were still offenders who had been housed within administrative segregation for over 24 years.” Twenty four years! Raemisch andWasco seem to acknowledge that critics might quibble with how the department defines the status of some prisoners, such as those in residential treatment programs who would rather stay in their cells. But the apparently sincere desire on their part to end the isolation of as many prisoners as possible is clear in the report.
“We offer our offenders in Residential Treatment Programs out-of-cell opportunities for both therapeutic and nontherapeutic time,” theywrite. “We don’t force them to come out if they don’twant to. This has brought us ridicule and critique butwe feel thatwe are reaching these offenders through time and patience and consistent dose and frequency of treatment availability.”
Legislation last year outlawed placement of the seriously mentally ill in long-term solitary, although the department had already committed to such a policy on its own.
Since we’d been critical of the department’s reliance on solitary, it’s only right to acknowledge significant progress. And it’s also worth noting the progress extends to public safety. No prisoner today is released directly from the most highly restrictive status directly into the community, as was done in the past. The release in 2013 of Evan Ebel was the most notorious mistake in that regard, as he went on to commit two heinous murders, including the shooting of Raemisch’s reform-minded predecessor, Tom Clements.