Bill curtailing solitary confinement faces changes to reduce cost

Amendments to strip off an expected fiscal note are on the way for a bill sponsors say would protect those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities from being placed in solitary confinement while incarcerated. The changes will be made in order to make the bill more palatable to a Legislature which is tasked with making budget cuts to a state budget in the throes of a financial crisis.

Senate sponsor Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, told the Colorado Independent that while she did not expect to speak with stakeholders until the end of this week, she would be working to eliminate the 23 FTEs she said legislative council staff determined are needed to fully implement the bill.

Carroll said that she would likely cut parts of the bill that required the Department of Corrections to use licensed mental health professionals to make out-of-cell evaluations every thirty days among other small concessions. She said saving the bill still meant mental health training for staff, initial mental health screenings by licensed mental health care professionals and other significant changes remained in the bill.

Carroll said that without the 23 FTEs the bill would likely save the state $1 to $5 million annually. Those savings she said could be used to fund mental health programs for inmates in the state.

“That is the kind of money that can go into mental health programs that actually work and decrease violence,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the bill, sponsored by herself and Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, is intended to ensure that administrative segregation was not being used as a default placement tool by prison administration and that a graduated process was better facilitated.

Currently over 40 percent of individuals being released from solitary confinement are released directly onto the streets with no preparations for interaction with everyday society. Carroll said her bill would safeguard against this by mandating that in most cases inmates would not be placed in solitary confinement during the final six months prior to their release.

“What we are looking for in the bill is having some intermediary options, something between general population and solitary confinement,” Carroll said. “We have found that is a better management tool because it allows you to escalate and deescalate.” 

Still, many at the Colorado Department of Corrections testified against the bill Monday, saying it could make conditions less safe for both staff and inmates.

Tony Carochi, director of Colorado prisons, said that the bill would tie the hands of prison staff to manage safety threats in the facility. He said the DOC’s policies on administrative segregation have continued to progress and said those in solitary confinement are allowed visitation, books, mental health care and educational opportunities. “We don’t just put them in a lock box and throw away the key,” Carochi said.

“If we cannot manage our most dangerous and violent offenders, we cannot manage any part of our population,” Carochi said. This [bill] would feed the agenda of every security threat in our system.”

The bill has a provision that allows for a prison warden to place in solitary individuals who are considered active security threats.

Many former inmates testified in favor of an independent monitor to help in the determination of whether an individual should either be placed–or remain–in administrative segregation. To a degree the bill offers that type of oversight by providing that a licensed health official sign off on a number of factors before allowing an inmate with severe mental illness or impairment to be placed in solitary confinement. That criteria would include the provisions that the confinement would not exacerbate an inmate’s mental state and that therapeutic options are being fully utilized. 

According to testimony heard Monday, 25 percent of men and 61 percent of women in the prison population are considered to have a moderate to severe need for mental health treatment.

Jesse Ulibarri, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, said the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution protects the mental health of prisoners and said nationally the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court over states’ treatment of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill in prison populations.

“It is time we modernize our policies to prioritize increased public safety, enhanced mental health outcomes and decreased costs for the state,” Ulibarri said.

While no one at the committee disagreed that solitary confinement was a necessary tool that should be used with care, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, raised the question of whether it was appropriate for the Legislature to “shoehorn” mental health procedures and responsibilities into Colorado’s prisons. She said while she took no comfort in the notion a mentally ill individual might be placed in solitary confinement, she was not certain that the prison system was designed to accommodate the features of the bill.  

“That is not what they are set up to be,” Roberts said. “Society decided we weren’t going to have separate facilities for mental illness and now they are residing in our prisons. The very real threat we have here is if we don’t completely appreciate the safety piece for those inside.” 

Advocates said that while Roberts was correct that greater societal responsibility for those with mental illness was key to reducing that population in prisons, Carroll’s bill could be one step forward in a long process.