By Kristin Jones
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill Friday morning that bans the practice of keeping seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.
The bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, won the support of advocates and rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the isolation of prisoners with mental illness violates the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and endangers public safety.
But as Rocky Mountain PBS I-News has reported, state prisons aren’t the only place in Colorado where offenders with mental illness are subject to lengthy periods of solitary confinement. In the state’s county jails, solitary confinement – or administrative segregation – remains common for inmates with serious mental illness. The isolation can last days, months or even years.
In jails, this practice is left intact by the latest state law.
The new legislation came on the heels of a series of tragedies in Colorado, including the killing last year of prisons chief Tom Clements by a man who had been released directly from long-term solitary confinement into the community. In an irony often noted, Clements had worked to reduce the use of administrative segregation in state prisons.
The current corrections chief, Rick Raemisch, has continued the work that his predecessor started, publicly calling for a rethinking of the practice of solitary confinement in general, and pledging to remove seriously mentally ill inmates from isolation in the state prisons.
His concerns were echoed by Colorado legislators who worried about the damaging effects of solitary confinement on mental health and the risks to the public from prisoners who will someday be released.
The law now etches some of Raemisch’s policies in stone, and adds funding and a level of oversight. Prisoners with mental illness won’t be kept in confinement for longer than 30 days and will be guaranteed a period of therapeutic activity and out-of-cell time each week.
The Colorado chapter of the ACLU took the lead in campaigning against the isolation of mentally ill prisoners. Denise Maes, the organization’s public policy director, told I-News the law signed today “makes a very important policy statement that it’s wrong to place seriously mentally ill offenders in solitary confinement.”
Now, Maes said, the ACLU-Colorado intends to turn its attention to the isolation of mentally ill inmates in county jails. But she acknowledged that a policy change there may be a heavier lift.
“Municipal jails are just a hodgepodge of different activities not very well regulated by the state,” Maes said. At the same time, a shortage of psychiatric beds and a lack of funding for alternative mental-health treatment put a huge burden on jails, she said. Resources are thin.
Still, Maes said, the same arguments that changed the policies in the state prisons also apply to jails.
“Keeping a seriously mentally ill offender in solitary confinement is unconstitutional, and at some point the state has to have the resources to deal with it. Otherwise, they’ll be faced with it in court,” Maes said. “Communities have to find the resources.