Ending Solitary Confinement

with Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections

A 2018 Yale Law School study found that more than 4,000 prisoners suffering from serious mental illness in the U.S. are being held in solitary confinement.

Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, discusses how Colorado has effectively ended solitary confinement for prisoners, sparking a growing trend to end the practice.

Posted on:

December 31, 2018

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: In 2013, Colorado Corrections Chief Tom Clements was murdered on his doorstep by a former inmate who spent much of his prison life in solitary confinement. Prior to the killing of Clements, administrative segregation, also known as ad seg or solitary confinement, was a common punishment in Colorado prisons and all across the country. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Tetiana Anderson. Joining me is Tom Clements´ successor, Rick Raemisch. He is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. And Rick is an honoree of Governing magazine´s 2018 Public Officials of the Year. Rick, thank you so much for joining us.

Raemisch: Well, thank you. It´s an honor to be here.

Anderson: And when your predecessor was killed, he was already working on prison reforms in Colorado when it comes to solitary confinement. What did his death do to you and the mission that you would soon pick up?

Raemisch: Well, frankly, I was hired to continue those reforms by Governor Hickenlooper. And it would have been easy for elected officials to go the opposite direction, once that horrific incident occurred, by shutting down everything. But the governor felt that we were on the right track and to continue those reforms, regardless of the horrible tragedy that had occurred.

Anderson: In 2017, you wrote in a New York Times op-ed that at any given time across the country, there are tens of thousands of inmates who are in solitary confinement. And, of course, it´s a position they don´t choose, but it is something that you did choose for yourself. You went into solitary for about 20 hours. Why did you do that, and what did that do to you on a personal level?

Raemisch: Well, I´ve got about 40 years in the criminal justice system, and so I´ve been in and out of solitary cells I can´t tell you how many times. But I´d never spent three shifts in one as an inmate. And we were doing a newsletter as part of moving our reforms forward for our staff, and it was a internal newsletter. I had no intention of doing anything external with it. But I felt that to walk the talk, if I were to go in as an inmate and then write about it for the newsletter that it would put more weight to our reforms. But once I got out and wrote the letter up, I felt that maybe there were some more legs to this than an internal newsletter. And, ultimately, it ended up in The New York Times. And I hadn´t realized at the time that I was the only executive director in the country that had ever done that. And I do know and I´ve said 20 hours was a... piece of sand on the beach. It was just such a small amount compared to the years that others have spent in solitary.

Anderson: Well, certainly -- I was gonna just say, too -- 20 hours compared to the days, weeks, months, and, as you just mentioned, even years that these inmates can spend in solitary confinement. Talk us through some of the long-term effects that that has on those prisoners.

Raemisch: Well, it´s the -- The data´s overwhelming now that the psychological effects, very damaging -- the mental health effects. The neuroscientists say that almost immediately with involuntary solitude that your brain begins to misfire. What isn´t talked a lot about is the physical effects. You´re in a space the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day, for sometimes years, which means that if you´re elderly, your muscles start to deteriorate. Your vision certainly starts to deteriorate. But then, oftentimes, those with mental health issues end up in solitary. And I just firmly believe that if you´re in solitary for long-term times that it multiplies or manufactures mental illness.

Anderson: A lot of these inmates used to be released right from solitary confinement, directly into the community. What are some of the changes that you and other state officials made to correct some of the negative impacts of all of that?

Raemisch: Well, that´s one of the reasons I distrust bureaucracies. Can you imagine taking someone that had spent years in solitary and then escorting them with two correctional officers out of that cell in leg chains, belly chains, handcuffs, taking them and putting them on a public bus, taking the chains off, and leaving that bus? And I say if I was the bus driver, I would stand up and look at the other passengers and, at the top of my lungs, scream "Run!" And there´s no question, by doing that, we were sending people back more dangerous than when they came in. And we´re called the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Punishment. And so what we had done in March of 2014, developed programs where they would -- we called them Step-Down programs. where we could gradually get them resocialized so that they could go back into the community and, hopefully, you know, in a much safer, better manner, because with 95% coming back into the community, that´s our job. And we had lost sight of our mission, which was public safety.

Anderson: Quickly, how hopeful are you that other states will look at what you´ve done and implement some of the same changes?

Raemisch: Many states now -- in fact, all states are looking at their policies, and many states are changing them. They haven´t gone as far as we have yet, because now our -- the maximum time someone can be in a solitary cell is for 15 days. But there´s a lot of progress -- much more than has been ever.

Anderson: Rick Raemisch from the Colorado Department of Corrections, thank you so much for joining us.

Raemisch: Well, thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and around the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Tetiana Anderson.

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