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.

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