DENVER — Colorado's new Corrections Department director is promising to reform solitary confinement policies after spending the night in an isolated cell, an experiment he said left him "feeling twitchy and paranoid."
In an opinion letter to the New York Times published Thursday, Executive Director Rick Raemisch said he suffered mental anguish after spending only 20 hours in solitary confinement on Jan. 23 to see what it was like. The average time spent in solitary in Colorado is 23 months, and some prisoners spend 20 years with limited contact with prison officers or other prisoners.
Raemisch decided to get first-hand experience after a parolee suspected of murdering Raemisch's predecessor, Tom Clements, was released onto parole directly from solitary confinement in March. Raemisch says that was unacceptable.
Evan Ebel served much of his eight years in prison in solitary confinement. Ebel was later killed in a shootout with Texas authorities in 2013.
Before his death, Clements had also worked to limit the use of solitary confinement and closed a new prison built specifically to hold prisoners in solitary.
Raemisch said he was deeply affected by what he learned in prison.
"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. I couldn't make sense of any of it, and was left feeling twitchy and paranoid," he wrote in his op-ed piece.
Raemisch said many states now agree that solitary confinement is overused, and states like New York and Colorado are already taking action to reduce the use of isolation, also known as administrative segregation, or ad seg.
He said many of those prisoners who act up and get thrown into solitary confinement already have mental problems, and isolating them only makes the problems worse.
"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," he wrote.
Proposed changes in Colorado include increasing the number of mental health staff at state prison facilities, and making sure that the seriously mentally ill in solitary confinement have 20 hours of out-of-cell time each week, which could require legislative approval.
He told Colorado lawmakers in September that overall, there were 662 inmates in solitary confinement that month, compared to 1,505 in September 2011. It's a number he said he wants to continue reducing.
"I think this department will admit, and has admitted like many states, that administrative segregation has been overused here," he told lawmakers.