Legislators take aim at solitary confinement

A bill to reduce the numbers of mentally ill and developmentally disabled prisoners in solitary confinement was introduced Monday by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.

Working with the ACLU of Colorado, the pair say they want to improve treatment services to those inmates and help them become better integrated into society after incarceration.

The bill would ensure those individuals receive a health evaluation to determine if treatment is being properly provided to them while incarcerated and to determine if solitary confinement would exacerbate their condition, among other provisions.

SB 176 looks to address the findings of the 2008 Department of Corrections’ report, “Administrative Segregation for Mentally Ill Inmates.” The report found that 37 percent of those found in solitary confinement are mentally ill or developmentally disabled.

The same population made up only 15 percent of state inmates in 1999, with the numbers going up since then because of budget cuts to programs that once serviced those individuals, the report said. In addition, the report found that 47 percent of state inmates are released from administrative segregation directly into the community without any opportunity to adjust to living with other people.

“Increasingly we are seeing that people with mental illness and serious mental disabilities are being thrown into solitary,” Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, told the Colorado Independent. “In Colorado this occurs for an average amount of 16 months with little or no access to mental health treatment. Those kind of conditions can seriously exacerbate mental illness–making people all that more unhinged through isolation.”

The bill seeks to have trained mental health clinicians evaluate prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities before they are placed in solitary confinement in order to establish if such isolation will negatively impact their mental state and to determine if therapeutic measures have been fully utilized to treat the offender. If such inmates are found not to be receiving proper care or would be negatively impacted by solitary confinement, then that offender would not be placed in solitary confinement.

The legislation further limits the amount of time an inmate can stay in confinement without a mental health evaluation, while it ensures solitary confinement’s use is only permitted when an inmate presents an immediate threat of harm to others or to the security of the administration.

“Colorado cannot afford business as usual in its prison system,” said Levy. “We must use science and behavioral health research to get a better result from costly imprisonment. Solitary confinement is the harshest and most expensive option. It should be used sparingly and only with appropriate limitations so prisoners with mental illness don’t become more ill and aren’t made more dangerous.”

According to a release put out by the ACLU of Colorado, solitary confinement costs the state an additional $14,933 to $21,485 per inmate. There are over 1,400 inmates in such incarceration in the state. Further, high recidivism rates found with individuals not first released into the general population add to the state’s future burden.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget has called for cuts to some programs currently housing those with mental illness and disabilities and programs that look to help transition individuals back into the community, and it is unclear that there are funds to institute programs that might see cost cuts further down the road. Still, Carroll said the benefits of reducing solitary confinement can bring about real savings.

“What we get from continuing the policy of placing prisoners with mental health issues or developmental disabilities in solitary confinement is increased costs for incarceration, increased recidivism rates and reduced public safety,” said Carroll. “Especially in tough economic times, we can do better by using cost-saving mental health evaluation and treatment options rather than budget-busting solitary confinement.”

The sentiment was followed by Jesse Ulibari, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, who said: “By undermining the innate human need for social interaction, solitary confinement works against our goals as a society. Currently 41% of inmates in solitary confinement are released directly from their cell to the street — a dangerous practice — without time to readjust to human interaction while still under supervision. What we want are people ready to fully integrate back into their communities; not people who are released from solitary confinement and led directly to the prison gate, only destined to return again.”

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