CAÑON CITY, Colo. — The cells where inmates are kept in solitary confinement at the state penitentiary here are 7-by-13-foot boxes arranged in semicircular tiers. When the warden, Travis Trani, heard that Rick Raemisch, Colorado’s new chief of corrections, intended to spend a night in one of them, he had two reactions.
“I thought he was crazy,” Mr. Trani recalled. “But I also admired him for wanting to have the experience.”
Mr. Raemisch has been in his job for just over seven months, having stepped in after his predecessor was shot to death a year ago Tuesday by a former inmate who had spent years in solitary. During that time, Mr. Raemisch has gained a reputation as an outspoken reformer and has made clear that he wants to make significant changes in the way the state operates its prisons.
Mr. Trani was given only about nine hours’ notice, and he rushed to make arrangements. An upper-tier cell was selected so that if inmates recognized Mr. Raemisch, they could not pelt him with objects from above. A code phrase, “I need medical,” was agreed on for him to use if he felt unsafe. He was advised to lay his towel across the cell door to block “fishing” — prisoners’ sending notes or other items into his cell using a weighted piece of string.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on Jan. 23, two corrections officers escorted Mr. Raemisch along the tier, removed his handcuffs and leg shackles, and slammed the door shut.
The directors of state prison systems tend to keep a low profile. But Mr. Raemisch’s brief prison stay — he spent 20 hours in the cell and wrote about the experience in an opinion piece in The New York Times last month — drew local and national headlines.
On Capitol Hill, where Mr. Raemisch told a Senate subcommittee last month that solitary confinement was “overused, misused and abused,” he was besieged by well-wishers, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, who joked that directors in other states might now want to take “the Colorado challenge.” Others, though, called his action a politically motivated stunt. “This guy is jive,” said Peter Boyles, a conservative talk radio host in Denver.
Mr. Raemisch, 60, is not the first corrections director to criticize the widespread reliance of American prisons on solitary confinement, the practice of locking prisoners alone in cells for 22 or more hours a day over a period of months, years or even decades. In the last two years, an increasing number of states, prodded by lawsuits, lower budgets and public opinion, have been rethinking the policy.
Tom Clements, Colorado’s previous executive director of corrections, was convinced that many inmates in segregation cells — Colorado made extensive use of solitary confinement — did not need to be there. He was particularly worried about the state’s habit of releasing some prisoners from long-term isolation directly onto the streets, with no transition. Mr. Clements’s killer, Evan S. Ebel, who died in a shootout later with the police, was one such prisoner.
To Mr. Raemisch, who was secretary of corrections in Wisconsin until newly elected Gov. Scott Walker moved him out of the post in 2011, the potential negative effects seemed obvious.
“You don’t have to spend much time in a prison talking to someone in a segregation cell to realize that something is inherently wrong with that,” he said, sitting one recent afternoon in his office in Colorado Springs, where photographs show him as a young narcotics detective standing next to giant marijuana plants and with a mountain lion he bagged on a hunting trip in Idaho. “Everything you know about treating human beings, that’s not the way to do it.”
By the time he died, Mr. Clements had cut the number of inmates in solitary confinement in half, to 726 from about 1,500. Mr. Raemisch has decreased that number to 577, and has moved all but a few inmates with serious mental illnesses into other settings.
But when Mr. Raemisch arrived in July, the Corrections Department, which runs 20 prisons for about 20,000 inmates, was itself in lockdown, the executive staff was in disarray and many of the programs initiated by Mr. Clements had been halted.
Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, who said he was impressed by Mr. Raemisch’s law enforcement background and by his determination to proceed slowly and with a constant eye to safety, asked him to pick up where Mr. Clements had left off.
“I was looking for someone who would not just carry it on but get it done,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “In your life, you only get so many people that are the right person at exactly the right time.”
Before coming to Colorado, he had spent his entire life in Wisconsin, where his family has century-old roots; a plaque at Madison’s municipal airport commemorates his father, a longtime county board supervisor.
Mr. Raemisch’s staff members have gotten used to his directness, and to his sudden silences. “When he’s quiet, that’s when he’s at his best, because his wheels are turning,” said Kellie Wasko, his deputy.
Like Mr. Clements, Mr. Raemisch emphasizes that 97 percent of inmates will eventually be released.
“First and foremost, you have to understand that they’re going back, and it’s our job to get them prepared and determined to be law-abiding citizens when they go back,” he said. “I don’t want any new victims. That’s what drives me.”
But he has also pushed into territory where few others in his position have ventured. A memo sent to corrections staff this month described an ambitious agenda for the coming months, including allowing death row prisoners out of their cells for four hours a day and sending inmates to solitary confinement for specific lengths of time instead of indefinite periods. “They should know when they’re coming out,” Mr. Raemisch said.
He hopes to go further, making changes in the training of corrections officers, the preparation inmates receive before they are released and the way that corrections officers interact with inmates.
In Wisconsin, Mr. Raemisch’s views sometimes put him at odds with critics who accused him of being soft on crime. An early-release program he started there was called “catch and release” and “hug a thug” by some legislators.
But by that point in his career, the absolutes he saw as a young law enforcement officer had faded into more complex realities, he said. He had observed the criminal justice system from many angles, chasing down cocaine dealers on the streets of Madison, interviewing rape victims and seeing inmates in the county jail “sleeping on the floor, doing nothing all day long, in a system they couldn’t get out of.”
After a while, you realize that you spend most of your life in gray,” he said. “Or at least if you’re smart, you do.”
Now, Mr. Raemisch said, he favors anything that helps to rehabilitate inmates and decrease the chances that they will commit further crimes when they get out.
“If it works, we better be doing it,” he said. “We’re already doing things that don’t work.”
He was at his home in Wisconsin last March, preparing to go to work at Madison College, where he had taken a job as a dean after leaving state government, when he heard that Mr. Clements had been killed.
“It made me angry,” he said. “His purpose was really to help inmates, and to be killed by an inmate — it was just insulting to me.”
His predecessor’s violent death continues to shadow him. Having received death threats days after arriving in Colorado, he travels with a security detail and carries a gun on planes. His family has had to adjust to coexisting with bodyguards, a development his younger daughter is not entirely happy about.
“It’s pretty hard to form relationships when there’s guys with guns following you,” he said.
Advocates for crime victims worry that Mr. Raemisch is moving too fast and that public safety could be jeopardized. Prisoner advocacy groups complain that he is moving too slowly: Some inmates with mental illnesses, they say, are still kept in cells 22 hours a day without adequate treatment.
Mr. Raemisch said he was trying to find a balance between the two poles, stressing his concern for safety and reminding his critics that large bureaucracies move slowly.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
In Wisconsin, the thought of spending a night in a segregation cell never crossed his mind, Mr. Raemisch said, but in Colorado, it grew on him. He called Ms. Wasko on a Tuesday night to float the idea and was met with dead silence. “Hello, are you there?” he asked.
Ms. Wasko later said her first thought was “Why?” and her second, “I won’t bury another executive director.”
“Tom was inside his house” when he was killed, she said, referring to Mr. Clements. “Anything can happen under the roof of a prison.”
Mr. Raemisch said he was surprised that his day in solitary confinement had received so much notice.
“It was 20 hours,” he said. “If it would have been maybe even two days or a week, I would think, ‘Yeah, that would probably get someone’s attention.’ I might walk out stark raving mad, but it would get somebody’s attention.”