Solitary confinement bill pared down as DOC says it already plans big changes

Senate Bill 176, sponsored by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, underwent a significant transformation when it was amended due to concerns from the Colorado Department of Corrections that the bill might interfere with changes already planned. The bill, which would have prevented some mentally ill prisoners from being placed in solitary confinement, will now fund mental health programs in prisons, reduce sentences, and ensure prisoners are placed in solitary confinement based on conduct not associations.

During negotiations on the bill, originally intended to radically change when and why prisoners are placed in solitary confinement, the Department of Corrections raised concerns that the bill might affect their ability to control public safety within institutions and said its prescriptive clauses might interfere with implementing recommendations they expect to receive from a review being conducted by the National Institute of Corrections.

“Since we last met, the Department of Corrections has applied for a grant.” Carroll opened. “The purpose of that grant was to do a complete overhaul of the [inmate] classification system including solitary confinement. This is very encouraging news from the department.”

Carroll and the DOC came to an agreement that she said works to ensure the Department is afforded time to rectify what groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and others saw as human rights violations within the prison system before taking further legislative action.

Perhaps the greatest effect the bill will have on the DOC is a change from its current use of associations to dictate whether a prisoner should be placed in solitary confinement. The DOC agreed to change its policy to constrain the use of penalties for associations and instead begin using action-based criteria to determine whether an inmate should be placed in administrative segregation.

In addition, the bill as currently proposed should generate a 5-year savings of $3.2 million from sentences shortened through the bill’s allowance of earned time for prisoners undergoing solitary confinement. The department will then be allowed to use that money for both mental health treatment and programs as well as funding pilot programs designed to serve as alternatives to solitary confinement.

Finally, the bill will require a report to the Legislature on the statistics surrounding administrative segregation next year.

The Department of Corrections recently saw Tom Clements appointed as executive director. Carroll said that Clements appears to be adamant about assessing 15 year-old penal programs that have not been looked at seriously since implementation.

Clements is using a National Institute of Corrections grant to fund an assessment of the Department’s classification system used in determining the placement of offenders in prison. That assessment will look at factors such as mental health, crime and institutional behavior, and provide data on whether they are appropriately weighted or should still be used as factors at all. When it is done, the assessment will drive changes from minimum security through administrative segregation.

Katherine Sanguinetti, public information officer at the Colorado Department of Corrections, told The Colorado Independent that the review process has been part of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s push to review all Colorado programs for efficiencies.

“I think the committee will be very happy about what is happening with this grant on a reclassification review. I think that there is an earnest dedication and a lot of good news from a new director that is very serious about trying to update a lot,” Carroll told the committee.

Despite assurances from the Department of Corrections and Carroll that changes in the system looked to be coming, the ACLU of Colorado expressed doubt that concerns for the mentally ill will be addressed. They said the Department of Corrections already has a study with over a decade of data indicating the mentally ill are being kept in solitary confinement. The ACLU said the time for studies was over and it is time to act.

“We are still very concerned that the mentally ill are being housed in solitary confinement because there are no other options,” Jessie Ulibari, legislative director for the ACLU of Colorado, said. “That concern is not really addressed with this amendment and we think that the DOC needs to be pushed and is addressing the moral concerns of housing them in long-term solitary confinement.”

“In reality it (mental illness) is a way that people end up in Solitary confinement. The department has agreed to change their policy by placing a person in solitary confinement based on their conduct and not on their associations.

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