The Denver Post
Lawmakers approved funding last week to open a third of Colorado's newest state prison.
Not just any prison, but a state-of-the-art Supermax that will lock offenders in solitary confinement.
You may be comfortable with that. But consider this:
"Ninety-five percent of these people will get out and be released back on the streets. All isolation will have done is make them as violent, crazy and dangerous as possible when they get out," says psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard University researcher studying solitary confinement. "This isn't getting tough on crime. It's getting tough on the community."
Grassian makes his case in a new documentary about the Colorado State Penitentiary, or CSP-I, in Florence — a 17-year-old facility housing the hardest to handle inmates. "Solitary Confinement" airs tonight at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.
It follows inmates through the 23 hours they spend each day locked down in cells, their food pushed through slots in their door. The 24th hour is for exercise, also alone.
The film debunks conceptions that these guys are all Hannibal Lecters. One is doing time for identity theft. Another stole a car. The average stint in isolation — or "ad-seg," short for administrative segregation, as officials call it — is two years. Prisoners end up there not because of the crimes they committed, but for violations that corrections officials say threaten their
administrative efficiency. It's an attempt to modify behavior. "We really believe in what we're doing here," CSP-I warden Susan Jones says of her "Quality of Life" program.
Colorado has no limit on how long the system can keep inmates in conditions that many experts call torturous.
"When you move into a cell, you look on the floor and you'll see where cement wore out from the last person who did the same thing you'll be doing — walking from the bunk to the door, bunk to the door. Turn. Turn. Turn. . . . It does seem to break something inside you," says Josue Gonzales, who has spent seven of his 29 years alone in CSP-I.
In 2003, then-Gov. Bill Owens convinced lawmakers to build a second state Supermax. The $208 million CSP-II was delayed by a lawsuit, then completed last year when Ritter said he would keep it mothballed because of budget cuts.
Then he changed his mind, and lawmakers approved $9.37 million Thursday to open 316 beds in one wing of the new prison this year. Another $1.43 million will make available 190 beds in CSP-I and 144 beds at Centennial Correctional Facility, both for inmates with mental illnesses.
It's hard to argue the new prison shouldn't open, given that Coloradans already pay millions each year in construction debt. And it's clear that guards and prisoners need protection.
What isn't clear is why officials think inmates — especially those with mental health disorders — will benefit in solitary confinement.
Two-thirds of those who go through the CSP program find themselves back in jail within three years. I'm bewildered why the state thinks that isolation — which costs $34 more a day per inmate than traditional programs — is the answer.
"It's virtually guaranteed to make people worse," Grassian tells me.
Gonzales walked free in October, straight from isolation to the streets. He's trying to find a job in Pueblo.
"My face looks the same," he said Friday while shopping for a fishing reel at Wal-Mart. "But inside I'm not the same person. I'm angry and numb. It's hard to see how that makes society safer."
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
The Denver Post