Evan Ebel, suspected murderer of Prisons Chief Tom Clements, filed a series of grievances with the Department of Corrections shortly before his release from prison that document his concerns about transitioning directly from years in solitary confinement to the free world.
Ebel’s concerns fell on the deaf ears of prison officials who, documents suggest, seemed to care less than Ebel himself about the volatility and threat posed by a prisoner who had a history of threatening and injuring prison guards. Instead, the officials to whom the grievances were addressed focused on Ebel’s failure to dot the I’s and cross the T’s in his paperwork. They repeatedly found cause to dismiss them. Ebel “failed to follow the grievance procedure,” they wrote, and his messy handwriting failed to stay within the lines of the forms.
In fact, the department didn’t answer Ebel’s final complaint until he already had been set free. The DOC wrote its final grievance rejection letter on February 11, two weeks after it had released Ebel on parole. The letter gives a glimpse into his frustrations with the prison system, what Ebel saw as its soullessness and counter-productivity. Earlier grievances show Ebel felt those conditions were crushing his humanity.
It’s unclear if Ebel ever really expected to receive a considered response to his anxious questions. What he got was bureaucrateze.
“In this instance, you have written two lines of narrative into many of the lined spaces intended for just one line of narrative,” Grievance Officer Anthony A. DeCesaro wrote in a response dated February 11. “This resulted in a great deal of your grievance becoming illegible. So, when you claim in the Step 2 that the Step 1 response didn’t read your grievance perhaps it was because the Step 1 was the most part illegible. In addition, you claim that you are just looking for answers to questions about policy, Grievance Procedure is not the appropriate method for debating policy questions nor is it designed to address the policy questions you have posed. Please review AR 1350-03 Constituent Services Coordinator for more information about directing your concerns.”
Ebel, 28, was originally sentenced to eight years for robbery, then to four more years for assaulting a prison guard.
Authorities believe he shot and killed Denver pizza delivery driver Nathan Leon on March 17 and Prison Chief Clements on March 19, before being killed on March 21 during a police chase and shootout in Texas.
The Colorado Independent has reported accounts by Ebel’s friends and former prison mates who say his experience in long-term solitary confinement exacerbated his mental health problems and enraged him about a department he felt had eroded his ability to interact with people, let alone survive outside
Through a freedom of information request to the Corrections Department, The Independent this week obtained 51 pages of grievances Ebel filed between 2006 and 2013, during which he served most of his time in “administration segregation” or “ad seg” – the prison system’s term for solitary confinement. That entails living alone 23 hours a day in a concrete cell the size of two queen sized mattresses. In Colorado State Penitentiary — the prison where Ebel served most of his time — prisoners’ 24th hour is also spent alone, exercising in an indoor cage with no direct sunlight and only a small window for fresh air.
In that context, human contact consists mainly of passing a food tray through a slot in their door three times a day, being shackled by prison guards on the way to and from the exercise room and sending notes to other prisoners using, among other methods, synchronized toilet flushing to move the plastic wrapped letters up and down between floors. Family visits in a booth divided by heavy glass are allowed, though in many cases infrequent, given limited visiting hours and the 114 miles between CSP and metro Denver. Mail is a lifeline to the outside world. But that, too, is often curtailed by a curiously high rate of letters that don’t make it in or out of the prison.
For Ebel, “offender #125083,” as for about 800 other state prisoners still living in solitary confinement, “ad seg” is an existence that cuts off virtually all social stimulation, normal conversation and human interaction. It’s marked by an enduring sameness that, study after study has shown, exacerbates mental illness, atrophies social abilities and can beat down the psyche with hopelessness or spite.
Some prisoners cope by taking up meditation or religious practice. Some read and reread as much as possible, given the limited number of books they’re allowed in their cells. Some tune into TV and radio, if and when they’re allowed those privileges. Some draw or compose songs that nobody hears them sing. Some do push-ups. Some pace in circles. Some incessantly write letters to relatives, friends, friends of friends, politicians, clergy members, journalists and anyone else they hope will open their envelopes.
Instead of using violence or smearing feces on the wall – two other ways Ebel used to voice his frustrations in isolation — filing formal grievances is the prison system’s suggested method of voicing concerns, big and small.
Ebel’s grievances were well written in relatively neat penmanship that degenerated near the time of his release. They generally were succinct and polite — usually ending in “thanks” or even an underlined “thanks” – but they were also demanding and at times idiosyncratic.
The subjects of his grievances included problems sending and receiving mail and DOC’s decision not to let a woman visit him on grounds that her driver’s license wasn’t valid. Ebel complained about what he called inadequate medical treatment for a knee problem, tremors and spasms, intestinal issues, a colostomy bag and a persistent eye infection. He grieved that the prison censored his “Resistance” magazines, a publication popular among white supremacists. And he decried the confiscation of his literature about Asatru, a faith based on Northern European white lineage that Ebel listed as his religion. He complained about the cost of canteen items, and the lack of food products with protein for sale to prisoners. He grieved about his laundry going missing.
In 2006, Ebel was agitated about problems with the lighting in his cell.
“I have repeatedly contacted maintenance through the pod staff about having my light fixed. They responded and informed me that an electrician needs to come fix it. The electrician came stayed in my house for 5 minutes and deemed the problem static electricity. The problem lies in the fact that every time I turn my light off it comes back on, therefore keeping me up at night. The button also gets stuck and when I turn the top light on and cover it in an attempt to get some sleep my desk light comes on. The remedy I am requesting is that they fix it. If so, I’d really appreciate it,” he wrote in August of that year.
Five weeks later, he filed another grievance about the maintenance workers who repaired his light.
“They put their toolbox and other assorted things on my bed therefore leaving grease stains on my blanket and sheets. This is extremely disrespectful and could easily be a source of conflict between me and staff. I recommend that from now on you tell maintenance to either put their toolbox and tools on the ground or to fold my mattress in half and place them on the concrete slab. Thank you.”
The official response was sensitive to his frustration.
“Talked to inmate. Told him maintenance was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. Also told him I would talk to the staff in the shop about laying tools on the bunk,” it read.
Also in 2006, Ebel complained about “the fact that the toilet brush and the hand brush we use to sweep our floors are in constant contact with each other and rarely if ever cleaned.”
“This is extremely unsanitary,” he wrote. “You wouldn’t clean your own floors with a broom that’s been saturated in dirty toilet water and exposed to a feces smeared toilet brush and I ask that you don’t let us suffer the same indignity. Thanks.”
His grievance was denied on grounds that the “cleaning kits are cleaned with the cleaning agent Virex when required.“
“Staff is aware of the cross contamination issues and the individual compartments of the cleaning kit separate the toilet brush from the rest of the kit,” he was told.
By the end of 2006, Ebel’s grievances show he was becoming increasingly agitated. He complained about the satellite “super shuffle” radio programming repeating the same set of songs.
“Our lives are monotonous enough in CSP where we’re locked down 23 hours a day and basically do the same thing over and over again. The least you could do is give us a little variety of music to listen to so we could leave here with a small degree of our sanity intact,” he wrote in December of that year. “Also you continue to take privileges from us for no reason at all and then wonder why we act up. Well here’s your answer. If you could please revert to the old radio station schedule we’d most surely appreciate it. Thanks.”
That same month, Ebel wrote a grievance complaining about the split lip, bloody nose, four stitches above his right eye, and abrasions on his face, head and body caused by prison guards restraining him after they say he hit one of their colleagues. He also complained about his $10 copay to be stitched up.
“It doesn’t matter what my alleged actions are there’s nothing that justifies assaultive behavior by staff,” he wrote.
DOC flatly rejected his complaint: “The situation you reference involves you slipping the handcuffs and attempting and striking staff in the face. Your actions warranted an immediate response from staff so that they could protect themselves from your assaultive behavior. Staff lowered you to the ground and controlled you. Your injuries were incurred based on these actions. Staff used reasonable restraint in dealing with you, considering your ill intent to harm the officer. Based on these facts, your grievance is denied.”
Ebel’s use of the grievance process took a turn in November 2012 when, in handwriting that was remarkably smaller and more frenetic than before, he started asking broader questions of the DOC. He apparently had been released from, then sent back to solitary confinement after a fight with another prisoner involving a knife.
“It’s important that you understand I’m not grieving the ad seg level review…nor your decision regarding my own level review but rather have a few questions regarding your general policy,” he wrote.
He wanted to know the department’s position on self-defense.
“I have a basic and undeniable right as a human being to defend my life. If I’m being attacked with a knife am I just supposed to lie down…?” he asked.
He wanted to know how the DOC justified his placement back in solitary confinement for gang activity when he said the department couldn’t prove any active gang involvement.
And he wanted to know why the department was about to release him directly out of solitary confinement without preparing him for human contact.
The DOC didn’t answer, dismissing his questions “because the grievance procedure cannot be used to review convictions or segregation placement….”
Ebel wasn’t satisfied. On December 12, 2012, he filed a follow-up complaint, starting with “Clearly you didn’t actually read my grievance.” He went on to pose the same three questions to the department.
DOC’s response read as follows: “A Warden review was conducted on October 24, 2012. The decision at that time was that you be retained in Administrative Segregation. It has been your continued negative behavior that has resulted in your retention in your current status. You have been (sic) multiple opportunities to progress as we strive for you to be given opportunities to succeed. I do not see a requested remedy, however, if you are requesting release from Administrative Segregation I need you to understand that AR850-4, Grievance Procedure, section IV.D states, 2. This grievance procedure may not be used to seek review of any of the following: a. Code of Penal Discipline convictions, administrative segregation placements, Parole Board decisions, and decisions of the Reading Committee have exclusive appeal procedures. b. Classification is entirely at the discretion of the administrative head and classification committee of each facility.”
Ebel kept at it, filing yet another follow-up grievance on January 11, 2013.
“Again, now for the third time what I’m looking for here are answers to 3 questions,” he wrote.
Among those questions, again, was the issue of his forthcoming release from prison without step-down programs preparing him for social interaction and life beyond prison walls.
“Do you have an obligation to the public to reclimatize ‘dangerous’ inmates to being around other human beings prior to releasing them into society after they have spent years in solitary confinement? If not, why? The remedy I’m requesting is answers to these 3 questions. Thank you.”
DOC’s non-answer about Ebel’s messy handwriting was written two weeks after his release. By then, he was living in Commerce City and confiding in his friend, parolee and former CSP inmate Ryan Pettigrew, about his struggles adjusting to regular social interaction, handshakes, eye contact and other aspects of life outside isolation. Text messages from Ebel show he was anxious about his freedom and tempted by the urge to ease that anxiety through violence.
“…im just feeling peculiar & the only way i know i know to remedy that is via use of ‘violence’ even if that ‘violence’ be something as petty & inconsequential as a fist fight which id prefer be with someone i can trust as opposed to some renegade civilian who odds are will tell,” Ebel texted Pettigrew in mid-February, just as his grievance officer was citing problems with his penmanship in belatedly dismissing his concerns about his release.
A month later, Ebel is believed to have gunned down the DOC director at his front door in Monument.
Since Clements’ murder, much has been reported that Ebel was released four years early because of a clerical error failing to log his additional sentence for the attack on a prison guard. Questions also have been raised about why Ebel’s sentence was cut for participating in rehabilitation programs that he didn’t complete. In Clements’ honor, state lawmakers are contemplating measures to prevent such errors and loopholes in the future.
What’s not slated for consideration in the remaining 12 days of the legislative session is one of Clements’ top priorities: to improve rehabilitation services and end DOC’s practice of letting prisoners walk straight from isolation onto the streets. Clements wanted step-down programs and longer transition periods instead of releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement.
“You have to ask yourself the question – How does holding inmates in administrative segregation and then putting them out on a bus into the public, [how does that] square up?” Clements said in an interview last year. “We have to think about how what we do in prisons impacts the community when [prisoners] leave. It’s not just about running the prison safely and securely. There’s a lot of research around solitary and isolation in recent years, some tied to POWs and some to corrections. My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.”