GUEST COLUMN: Solitary confinement reform is welcome sign of progress

January 27, 2012

This month, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) announced that it would begin transitioning more than 300 inmates out of administrative segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement, and send them back to locations within the general prison population.

It might not sound like earthshaking news. But as we reflect on this decision to move toward a safer, less costly and more humane state prison system, it is important to note that every person in Colorado has a stake in this.

In this country, we believe that if someone is punished for a crime, they should have a clear picture of what their punishment will look like — especially of when it will end. In Colorado, however, hundreds of inmates have languished in solitary confinement for years at a time, with no clear path out, even when they have fully complied with all the rules and regulations of the institution.

There have long been cries for reform. Last year, State Senator Morgan Carroll introduced legislation to fundamentally change solitary confinement practices, calling for policy that would reaffirm our core values, effectively prioritize scarce law enforcement resources, and protect the safety of our communities. Carroll’s Senate Bill 176 was scaled back to allow the CDOC to audit its own practices and determine the best course of action. The result is the announcement of reducing solitary numbers made by CDOC Director Tom Clements.

Despite the depiction in the movies that solitary confinement is reserved for the worst of the worst, the independent audit found that most of those in solitary confinement in Colorado are not disruptive and have been in good standing with prison rules for a long time. In fact, the average length of stay in solitary confinement is not the 30 days that you see on TV, but instead two years or more. The independent consultants recommended a more transparent system that would allow an inmate to return to the general population in no more than nine months, if they are in compliance with all the rules.

We are encouraged that the Department of Corrections has begun to implement modest reforms that not only safeguard our fundamental values but significantly save law enforcement resources and taxpayer dollars, while preserving safety in prisons and on our streets. The CDOC now expects to reduce its solitary confinement population from 1,484 (May 2011) to 1,162 (December 2011) — a decrease of 342 prisoners.

With this decrease, the state corrections department is admitting what many of us have long said: We simply cannot justify the costs to public safety, to state budgets and to human lives that are exacted by ramped-up solitary confinement — especially of the ramped-up warehousing into solitary confinement of prisoners who are mentally ill. Just being tough on crime has proven unsuccessful. We must be right on crime and incarceration; and everything about this decrease feels right — for our communities, for our state and for all the people who live here.

We should applaud both CDOC and the Governor’s office for this courageous and necessary step forward.

Maes is Public Policy Director of the ACLU of Colorado.

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