WASHINGTON — Colorado's state corrections chief took his call for reforming solitary confinement to a Senate panel Tuesday, saying he wants to lower the number of people serving in those conditions in Colorado down to fewer than 3 percent of the state's prison population by next summer.

"We are failing in this particular area of our mission," Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections said. "Our mission isn't really about running more efficient institutions. ... Our duty and primary mission is to make a safer community ... and the way we make a safer community is by having no new victims."

Raemisch has drawn national attention in recent months to his work on reforming solitary — including his most recent high-profile try at living it himself for 20 hours.

He documented his experience in a New York Times op-ed last week.

Raemisch said Colorado's numbers have already improved.

In 2012, 140 prisoners were released directly from administrative segregation; this year, that number is two. Last spring, 50 severely mentally ill prisoners were serving in solitary; now that number is four, he said.
Raemisch acknowledged to the panel that some prisoners are so sick — or have made implicit threats — they can't be removed from administrative segregation.

"There are some diseases for which there is no cure," he said. "I get that, but I also understand in all other areas there is so much room for improvement."

He also said that 23 hours a day of isolation is subjective and should also be explored.

"Why is 23 the magic number? How about 20; how about 18; how about 15; how about we start at 23 and they behave for a couple days then it's 22?" he said. "There is all kinds of incentives we can use to change someone's behavior."

Joining Raemisch on the panel Tuesday was Piper Kerman, the author of "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," as well as Damon Thibodeaux, a Louisiana death row inmate who was released in September 2012 after being exonerated.

Both panelists urged the politicians to explore reforming how administrative segregation is defined and prison conditions.

Roughly 596 prisoners — or 3.6 percent — in Colorado are serving in so-called administrative segregation, usually defined as prisoner isolation for 23 hours a day.

Raemisch was working on the same issue in Wisconsin before being plucked to fill the job of Colorado's former corrections director Tom Clements, who was slain a year ago on his doorstep by a former prisoner who served in solitary before being released.

Telling the story to a Senate Judiciary Committee panel Tuesday, Raemisch called that "ironic."
"In a sense I don't think I'm replacing Clements," he told the senators. "I feel like I'm growing his vision."
Gov. John Hickenlooper gave Raemisch a few goals when he started the job: Lower the number in administrative segregation overall; reduce the number of prisoners who are released directly to the free world from solitary; and eliminate or dramatically reduce major mentally ill people from serving in solitary.

Raemisch said Colorado wasn't alone in examining administrative segregation policies.
"This isn't a way to treat an American," he said. "This is not a way the nation should be treating someone.

This is receiving the right amount of attention right now."
Allison Sherry: 202-662-8907, asherry@denverpost.com or twitter.com/allisonsherry