Colo. prison system looks beyond solitary confinement as solution
By overusing the “steel door solution,” Colo. DOC executive director said, prisons “had lost sight of the mission"
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
DENVER — Rick Raemisch became executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections in 2013 after his predecessor, Tom Clements, was assassinated by a former inmate who had been released after spending significant time in solitary confinement.
Clements, known as a progressive prison leader, had started working toward reducing the use of solitary a few years earlier at the behest of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who thought the practice was overused, Raemisch said.
Raemisch was directed to continue those reforms.
About 1,500 of Colorado’s approximately 20,000 prisoners were being held in solitary confinement when Colorado began to address the issue, Raemisch said.
Five years later, less than 1 percent of the state’s inmates are housed in isolation, Raemisch said. Assaults on prison staff members have dropped to their lowest levels in more than a decade, and one of the state’s “supermax” prisons is for sale. Another has been repurposed as a re-entry and discharge center.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have incidents,” he said. “We do, but the positive results far outweigh any negative.”
Raemisch spoke at a conference on prisons in Albuquerque last week and discussed how he came to believe in solitary confinement reform.
“I don’t preach to people,” Raemisch said in phone interview before the conference. “I just tell them what we’ve done here and talk to them about the results we’ve seen. And if someone wants to go down the path we went, I’m happy to help them.”
Raemisch has eliminated the use of solitary confinement except for short periods in the most extreme circumstances. He said previous policies allowed administrators to place inmates in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons for up to 90 days at a time.
“We cut that to 60, to 30 and then to 15,” he said. “Now, the amount of time a man can spend in solitary confinement is 15 days, period. We decided that the individuals who went in there had to have a light at the end of the tunnel. We were the only ones in the country to do that.”
The prison system also built de-escalation rooms where inmates can go to reduce stress.
Colorado also hired psychiatrists to help develop a resident treatment program to reintegrate inmates previously housed in solitary. Raemisch said some inmates, who’d spent years alone in their cells, had to be coaxed out with “bribes” — such as commissary items or additional privileges.
The department also created a therapy dog program and one in which inmates volunteer to offer support to one another.
Raemisch acknowledged he faced some internal pushback when he set out to implement reforms.
“When we first started this, not only was there no map, there was no road,” he said. “We didn’t all skip down the hallway linking arms and kumbaya-ing. Some people were dead set against it. Some retired, some transferred out.”
The reforms have thrust Raemisch into the spotlight as a leader in solitary confinement reform, making him a sought-after speaker among advocacy groups and corrections industry conferences.
Last year, the national Association of State Correctional Administrators awarded Raemish the Tom Clements Better Government Award, which was created in 2015 to recognize government employees who embody the ideals of fair and compassionate treatment of inmates.
Raemisch said he’d always considered himself “a strong law and order guy,” having spent the majority of his career on the law enforcement side of the criminal justice system. But as a self-described realist, he said he embraced solitary confinement reforms because he wanted to reduce the number of victims in the community.
By overusing the “steel door solution,” Raemisch said, he felt the prisons “had lost sight of the mission,” and were manufacturing their own problems by creating or aggravating many prisoners’ mental health issues — then sending them back out into the community.
“We need to send a better person back,” he said. “That’s always been a driving factor for me. And I’ve always been concerned with having mentally ill people in solitary. When did it become OK to lock someone who is mentally ill in a room the size of a parking spot 23 hours a day and let their demons chase them around the cell?”
Raemisch said the reforms have been relatively cost-neutral, with the money he’s spent on mental health staff and programming balanced by the hiring of fewer guards.
He said the reforms have benefited those on “the outside of the door” as much as they have the prisoners and the community.
Maximum-security prisons are tough places to work, he said, and while it may look like nothing is happening inside them from the outside, the sounds and smells can be horrific.
Now that inmates and guards have more contact, he said, “we’ve seen incredible improvement on both sides of the door. The staff enjoy their jobs much more now.
“These reforms have really changed corrections in Colorado,” he said.