Colorado prison inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement should prepare to see their conditions change after the new executive director of the state’s department of corrections said spending 20 hours in isolation has inspired him to reform it.
Rick Raemisch announced his intentions in an editorial for the New York Times, using the space to remind the public that prisoners who have committed even minor infractions in prison can often spend nearly two years in what is known as the solitary housing unit (SHU), or administrative segregation (ad-seg).
“I would spend a total of 20 hours in that cell,” he wrote. “Which, compared to the typical stay, is practically a blink. On average, inmates who are sent to solitary spend an average of 23 months there. Some spend 20 years.”
As reformers have tried to call attention to how inmates are punished behind bars, they have highlighted the numerous academic papers and medical studies that have found solitary confinement to be one of the most damaging mental experiences a person can endure. That seriousness is further exacerbated by the number of convicts who suffer from mental illness before they are ever placed in ad-seg.
Raemisch described how he fully immersed himself, writing of how that experience can shift a person’s mentality.
“First thing you notice is that it’s anything but quiet. You’re immersed in a drone of garbled noise – other inmates’ blaring TVs, distant conversations, shouted arguments,” he wrote. “I couldn’t make any sense of it, and was left feeling twitchy and paranoid. I kept waiting for the lights to turn off, to signal the end of the day. But the lights did not go off. I began to count the small holes carved in the walls. Tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.”
The impact that leaves on a person not only wears on them through their time behind bars, Raemisch explained, but also when they re-enter society.
“For a sound mind, those are daunting circumstances. But every prison in America has become a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and often the ‘worst of the worst’ – some of society’s most unsound minds – are dumped in ad-seg.
“If an inmate acts up, we slam a steel door on him,” he went on. “Ad-seg allows a prison to run more efficiently for a period of time, but by placing a difficult offender in isolation, you have not solved the problem – only delayed or more likely exacerbated it, not only for the prison, but ultimately for the public. Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in.”
The column was especially timely because a number of inmates, believed to be eight or nine, incarcerated at the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado were on a hunger strike and being forcibly fed, according to the watchdog organization Solitary Watch. The United Nations human rights office has declared that indefinite solitary confinement and nasal force-feeding constitute torture under the terms of international law.
Governor John Hickenlooper tapped Raemisch last years as the new director of the Colorado Department of Corrections after Tom Clements, the previous director, was fatally shot at the front door of his home by a parolee. Raemisch, who has said he accepted the position because of Clements’ death and not in spite of it, acknowledged in the Times that his new responsibility is a serious one.
“In a tragic irony he was murdered in his home by a gang member who had been recently released directly from ad-seg," he wrote. "This former inmate murdered a pizza delivery person, allegedly for the purpose of wearing his uniform to lure Mr. Clements to open his front door…Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better.”