Colorado Bans Use of Solitary Confinement for “Seriously Mentally Ill” Prisoners

George Lavender

Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 14 – 064 into law on Friday, restricting the use of long-term isolated confinement for inmates with serious mental illness.”

The bill requires the department of corrections to review the status of all offenders held in long-term isolated confinement within 90 days if the review determines that the offender is seriously mentally ill, the department shall move the offender from long-term isolated confinement to a mental health step-down unit, a prison mental hospital, or other appropriate housing that does not include long-term isolated confinement”

As the Associated Press reports , the bill prohibits the Department of Corrections from keeping prisoners with mental health issues in isolation units, unless there are exigent circumstances”

The legislation aligns with what the agency already was working on. Last week, there were 228 Colorado inmates in solitary confinement, and none were mentally ill.

The bill also creates a Work Group” to advise the state’s Department of Corrections on policies and procedures related to the proper treatment and care of offenders with serious mental illness in long-term isolated confinement, with a focus on persons with serious mental illness in long-term isolated confinement.” Use of long-term isolation for prisoners with mental health issues has been heavily criticized in Colorado and other states. An ACLU report found that as recently as two years ago, the state still had hundreds of mentally ill prisoners” in solitary confinement:

On any given day in 2012, between 537 and 686 mentally ill prisoners were held in solitary confinement in Colorado prisons. The average length of stay for mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement was 16 months.

In recent years, the state’s Department of Corrections has emphasized the need to reduce the number of people held in isolation, particularly those with mental health issues. Writing in the New York Times, the executive director of the state’s Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch said that Gov. Hickenlooper had charged him with three main tasks: limiting or eliminating the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates; addressing the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods; and reducing the number of offenders released directly from solitary back into their communities.” Earlier this year Raemisch made headlines when he voluntarily spent a night in solitary confinement. 

When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform. If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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