the Denver Post
In the days following Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements’ death, his family, his colleagues and Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed admiration for his compassion and his fundamental belief that all people could be redeemed. With new interim director Roger Werholtz in place, the governor and the CDOC have signaled an encouraging intention to further pursue Clements’ life-long goal of bringing greater safety to the public and humanity to Colorado’s prisons.
In his earliest days on the job, Clements became concerned that CDOC overused solitary confinement to manage prisoners, and that the number of mentally ill held in solitary confinement in Colorado was unacceptably high. Over 50 percent of prisoners held in solitary confinement had significant mental health needs. Moreover, 40 percent of Colorado prisoners were released from solitary confinement directly into the community. Clements knew these statistics put the public at grave risk, denied humane treatment to prisoners, and needlessly drained public resources.
During his tenure, Clements took significant steps to fundamentally change these policies. Most notably, he decreased the number of Colorado prisoners held in solitary confinement by more than 40 percent, without an increase in violent prison incidents. In the months before he died, Clements oversaw the creation of a 250 bed residential treatment program designed to get mentally ill prisoners out of solitary confinement and into therapy.
These reforms not only better preserved the constitutional rights of prisoners, but also helped to protect the community to which 97 percent of Colorado prisoners will eventually return. As Gov. Hickenlooper explained at Clements’ funeral: “[Tom Clements] talked with a level of confidence about the costs … the psychic costs, the personal costs of putting people for years in solitary confinement, many of whom had real issues with mental illness and then releasing them directly to [the public]. People who were judged to be dangerous to prisoners or prison personnel, yet at the end of their sentence, we would put them into [the public].
Clements’ reforms also made good fiscal sense. Housing prisoners in solitary confinement costs nearly twice as much as holding them in general population.
Clements made it clear that the correctional goals of protecting the public, respecting the constitutional rights of prisoners, and fiscal responsibility were not mutually exclusive and, in fact, could all be served simultaneously.
The ACLU of Colorado was privileged to work closely with Clements on reforms related to seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement. Our communications with Clements and his staff left us with much hope that, under Clements’ direction, Colorado would see both the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement drop to a fraction of the current numbers and an end to placement of seriously mentally ill prisoners in 23-hour-per-day lock down.
Clements’ work is not yet done. Colorado still relies on solitary confinement to house over 4 percent of its prisoners, despite states like Mississippi managing to drop their solitary confinement rate to 1.5 percent with a corresponding decrease in violent crimes both inside and outside the prison. More than 50 percent of Colorado prisoners in solitary confinement have significant mental health needs. By its own account, CDOC currently houses 87 seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement, 74 of whom have been in isolation for over a year. CDOC’s residential treatment program is not fully staffed and many prisoners in the program are still spending the vast majority of the day in isolation.
Perhaps most chilling of all for the public is that more than 20 percent of Colorado prisoners are still released directly to the public from solitary confinement, sometimes after having spent years in isolation struggling with mental illness, without the support they need to successfully return to society.
Tom Clements was actively working with his own staff, other prison leaders, legislators, and advocates for criminal justice reform like the ACLU to solve these problems. We urge the governor and Werholtz to honor Tom Clements impressive legacy by completing his unfinished work.
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.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
the Denver Post