To have known Tom Clements during his first year in Colorado meant hearing a statistic, sometimes over and over again, that haunted him as director of the state’s Corrections Department.
He mentioned it the day we met, shortly after shaking my hand.
“Did you know that 47 percent of offenders in ad-seg are walking directly out onto the streets?” he said.
Ad-seg, short for administrative segregation, the department’s term for solitary confinement, originally was meant to house the most violent prisoners, the so-called worst of the worst, to separate them from general population. In practice, it also has been used for gang leaders, convicts with gang affiliations and those who, for various reasons, aren’t considered compliant inmates.
Ad-seg involves locking prisoners down 23 hours a day alone in a cement cell about the size of two queen-sized mattresses. It means limiting human interactions to the small slot through which guards pass food, mail and toilet paper. It means shackling them for the short walk to and from an indoor exercise cage where their 24th hour is spent, also alone, without sunlight or fresh air.
In Colorado, ad-seg has meant spending months, years and sometimes decades without normal social contact. For many prisoners, it means marinating in numbing boredom, loneliness and the untreated mental illnesses that either landed them in solitary or that developed as a result of isolation.
“Forty-seven percent of these guys are walking right out of ad-seg into our communities,” Clements told me in 2011. “Forty-seven percent. That’s the number that keeps me awake at night.”
In slightly more than two years on the job, Clements cut the use of ad-seg by more than 40 percent, and the prison system saw no uptick in prison violence during that time. Clements closed Colorado State Penitentiary II, the state’s brand new supermax prison in Cañon City designed exclusively for solitary confinement. And by reintegrating isolated prisoners into social environments before setting them free, he managed to lower the 47 percent statistic that preoccupied him to 23 percent. His goal was to drive that percentage down to zero.
He didn’t get the chance.
On March 19 of this year, a man dressed in a pizza delivery uniform rang the doorbell at his home in Monument, fatally shot him and fled. Rumors spread instantly fueled by mainstream-media reports, that the murder was a hit orchestrated by a white supremacist prison gang, or by a prisoner with ties to the Saudi Arabian government, or both.
But those were just conspiracy theories.
The truth about Clements’ murder is rooted in the statistical reality that kept him up at night – that it’s a public safety risk to let any percentage of prisoners walk directly out of solitary confinement without helping them adjust to being around people. As it turns out, his fears were justified. Evan Ebel, the Colorado Department of Corrections parolee who killed Clements, had walked directly out of solitary into society and struggled with the transition for less than two months before he killed Nathan Leon, a pizza deliverer in Denver, gunned down Clements and then led police on a high-speed chase in Texas that ended in a shootout and his death.
“Evan Ebel was exactly what Tom warned us about every single day,” said Roxane White, chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“Here you had two people, one who suffered significantly from solitary confinement and the other who was trying to do something about it,” added Paul Herman, Clements’ longtime friend and colleague. “If what happened to Tom isn’t the ultimate irony, I don’t know what is.”
An alternative to amputations and executions
The notion that isolation harms the human psyche is hardly new. Solitary confinement started in U.S. prisons in the 1820s as a social experiment by Quakers seeking a more humane alternative to prison amputations and the death penalty. The theory, which Quakers soon disavowed, was that criminals would rehabilitate after long periods of introspection.
In the 1840s, Charles Dickens deemed the practice to be “cruel and wrong,” entailing “a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom.” Dickens described conditions in a Pennsylvania isolation unit as a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
By the late 1800s, solitary confinement was abandoned by most prisons (although reinstated after an outbreak of prison violence a century later). In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in by freeing James Medley, a Colorado man sentenced to death for killing his wife, on grounds that his stint in isolation had harmed him psychologically.
“This matter of solitary confinement is not…a mere unimportant regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner,” the court ruled. “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
In Colorado and across the country, solitary confinement re-emerged in the late 20th Century as part of the national wave of prison violence and war on crime.
Before Clements took over, Colorado’s Department of Corrections was facing several civil rights lawsuits about how it treated prisoners. It had sought federal funding for a year-long study about the psychological effects of administrative segregation, hoping to use its conclusions to defend the department in court. The authors of the research found a slight “improvement in psychological well-being among all study groups” of prisoners surveyed.
The 2010 report — which the DOC’s chief researcher Maureen O’Keefe referred to as her “baby” — was slammed by some civil libertarians for its methodology. One problem, dubbed the “Alysha Effect,” stemmed from the fact that an attractive graduate student named Alysha was sent to interview the prisoners who had gone long spells without any meaningful human contact.
Two of the subjects under observation were tossed out of the study because they hit on Alysha.
Critics also questioned prisoners’ candor in answering the study questions. No matter what the extent of their mental illness, human rights activists argued, few people trying to work their way out of solitary confinement would admit to psychological problems.
Controversy about the flawed study became known widely among prison administrators, mental health experts, civil rights lawyers, human rights organizations, prison watchdogs and prisoners. Stuart Grassian, a leading expert on solitary’s effect on mental health, had this to say to The Denver Post about the 2010 study: “It’s garbage in, garbage out.”
“I have never seen Chief Researcher Maureen O’Keefe here when the…jungle howls reverberate back and forth off the walls at night,” Clair L. Beazer, then a DOC prisoner, wrote in an essay published by Realcostofprisons.org. “I doubt she’s ever experienced the urine splash or the pre-prepared package of excrement that is regularly delivered by [the DOC’s] supposedly happy customers,”
A ‘great adventure’
Clements learned about the effects of long-term solitary confinement from almost two decades spent in probation and parole at Missouri’s Department of Corrections. Clements was hired and mentored there by a man named Gail Hughes, who believed that, given the right opportunities, prisoners could change their lives upon re-entering society.
Given that about 97 percent of prisoners were serving sentences that would make them eligible for release some day, his job was to make sure the system was helping them more than harming them. For Clements, it wasn’t just a question of redemption, but of public safety to protect the public from the vast majority of prisoners who one day would be released.
“We were there to help them make those changes. That’s very different than the people on the other side of corrections” who run the prisons, said Clements’ friend Herman, also a protégé of Hughes.
As a young probation and parole officer, Clements became well aware of the wounds that can come out of serving time, especially among the mentally ill, many of whom became entwined in the criminal justice system after de-institutionalization in the 1970s and 80s. Some of the sickest and most difficult to manage were banished into solitary confinement, which made resurgence throughout the country after a series of widely publicized prison murders in the 1980s. Isolation only exacerbated problems for many of theose prisoners. And so began a revolving door in which they would spend years in virtual solitude, get released and then quickly re-offend. Many of these mentally ill prisoners found it difficult to reenter the community when basic social norms, such as eye contact, touch or conversation, would set them into tailspins.
“We realized that we had to do something with those individuals and help them live within society. What you saw with Tom was our philosophy of trying to get those people out of ad seg as much as possible,” said George Lombardi, director of Missouri’s Department of Corrections and Clements’ former boss.
It was Clements’ friend Herman — now a consultant for Colorado’s prison system, among others – who suggested Clements apply to run CDOC after Hickenlooper’s election in 2010.
Chief of Staff Roxane said the Governor’s transition team had made prison reform, especially changes in solitary confinement policies, a priority in picking a new corrections director. Out of a wide field of candidates, she recalls Clements was by far the most familiar with the issue.
“Tom hit it out of the ballpark in terms of understanding,” she said.
During the vetting process, Herman says he and Clements had long conversations about whether Clements should stay in Missouri and build on his progress there or, if hired by Hickenlooper, try to create a larger legacy in Colorado. Clements landed the job. Herman said Clements’ wife, Lisa, referred to the move west as their “great adventure.”
Statistics and grins
A few months after then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s DOC released its controversial study touting the apparent psychological benefits of solitary confinement, Clements, Hickenlooper’s brand new appointee, launched a fact-finding mission about Colorado’s use of ad-seg early in 2011. The study by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections found that more than 50 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement have significant mental health needs. The study also found that Colorado’s solitary confinement policies, although effective for certain periods of time for the most violent prisoners, over-relied on isolation as a management tool, especially in the case of mentally ill prisoners.
“For Colorado to go from a stance that ad-seg is not a problem to a stance that it is a problem and overused was a major turnabout,” Herman said.
Combing through Colorado’s data, Clements fixated on the statistic he quoted to me when we met. He believed that the 47 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement who were walking free needed step-down programs to relearn social skills and develop ways to cope with the world outside their tiny cells. He brought up the statistic at staff retreats, community meetings and over dinner with friends.
“I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with him about the 47 percent,” said DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan. “He kept talking about the 47 percent and how it’s what basic public safety is about. You cannot take an offender from administrative segregation and put them directly into the community and expect him or her to know how to behave and do it successfully.”
“He told the number to everybody,” White added. “We’d be at a meeting and I’d say, ‘You haven’t told me the ad-seg number.’ He’d have a big grin on his face and would say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to ask.’”
White remembers the day in May 2011, just months after Clements started, when data came in showing the statistic was down by several percentage points.
“When the numbers landed on his desk…he had this grin, ear to ear. His eyes were so bright. It was like you had just given him the key to the city,” she said.
Moving beyond custody and control
Clements defied expectations inside and outside of the prison bureaucracy.
Considering the fact that wardens are trained to house and control prisoners, not reform them, some veterans on the DOC staff were skeptical about Clements and his plans.
“And here we were telling them that what they were doing wasn’t enough. It’s a big step from custody and control to thinking of the well-being of the offenders and the safety of the community once they’re out,” Herman said. “There was resistance from the inside, no doubt. To get his message across, I’m pretty sure Tom had to beat the wardens over the head with a club.”
Part of that tension arose with the establishment early this year of a 250-bed residential treatment program designed to shift mentally ill prisoners out of isolation and into therapy. The transition has been slow and required major adjustments to how prison wardens, psychologists and guards do their jobs.
Outside the department, many longtime critics of the DOC’s practices were surprised to find such a reform-minded director.
“I’m pretty sure none of them expected to like this guy,” Herman said. “But there were many of us who knew the surprise that was coming.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which has a long history of suing the DOC, credits Clements for actively engaging in discussions about practices that raise constitutional concerns, including placing seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement and shackling them without good reason.
The group also praises Clements for dramatically cutting reliance on solitary confinement, which, it notes, costs nearly twice as much as housing a prisoner in general population.
“Mr. Clements never saw a contradiction between protecting human rights, fiscal responsibility and protecting institutional security. He thought they all could be met simultaneously. That belief is no more clear than in his work on ad-seg,” said Rebecca Wallace, an ACLU staff attorney, who notes that her group “didn’t file a single lawsuit against the Department during Mr. Clements’ tenure.”
“We understood Mr. Clements directed his team to work with us. As a result, we would write a letter explaining our concerns and, in every instance, we would receive a call back saying Let’s find a way to work this out,” Wallace said. “That was a big difference from before.”
A ‘streak of cruelty and anger’
Evan Ebel, CDOC offender #125083, had a history of behavioral and criminal problems that became worse after his sister died in a car crash. He had the word hopeless tattooed on his abdomen.
“From the beginning, [Ebel] just seemed to have this bad streak, a streak of cruelty and anger,” Hickenlooper told CNN in the wake of the Clements shooting. The Governor is a former geologist and coincidentally a longtime friend of Ebel’s father, oil-and-gas lawyer Jack Ebel,
As a teen on Colorado’s Front Range, Evan Ebel went on a gun-toting crime spree that, with the help of a prominent defense attorney, resulted in a three-year sentence in community corrections rather than in prison. A subsequent crime spree involving a carjacking landed him an eight-year prison sentence in 2005. He racked up another conviction in prison in 2006 for assaulting a prison guard. That assault led Ebel to spend most of his prison time isolated in solitary confinement at the state’s highest security prison, Colorado State Penitentiary.
Prisoners who came to know Ebel by passing notes back and forth on their unit say he had been part of the 211 Crew, a white supremacist prison gang founded in Denver that, like prison gangs dominated by other races, protected its white followers. Ebel subscribed to a white-power magazine and, at least for a time, listed his religion as Asatru, a movement with Nordic roots that has factions extolling Aryan supremacy.
Four current and former 211 Crew members tell The Colorado Independent that Ebel had distanced himself from the gang before his release.
Jack Ebel — who did not respond to requests for interviews — testified at a 2011 Colorado Senate Judiciary hearing about how isolation was tearing his son apart psychologically. He told lawmakers that he was “shocked by how solitary confinement is used in this state.”
“What I have seen over six years is, [Evan] has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious,” he said.
“When he gets out to visit me and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, he’s so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-a-half before we can actually talk,” he testified. ” I just sit there. I go, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about his condition.’ I let him get it out, and eventually, because I am his father, he will talk to me. But I am convinced if any of the rest of you were to go to talk to him, he wouldn’t be able to talk to you.”
Ebel formally warned of his struggles in a series of grievances he filed with the DOC shortly before his release from solitary confinement.
“Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?” Ebel asked in three formal grievances, each written using almost the same phrasing, in the months before he walked free in January.
But the department answered the complaint — the last substantive official communication of a prisoner with a history of threatening and injuring guards — two weeks after it had released him on parole. And, instead of addressing Ebel’s public-safety concerns, the department response focused on bureaucratic minutia.
“In this instance, you have written two lines of narrative into many of the lined spaces intended for just one line of narrative,” Grievance Officer Anthony DeCesaro wrote on Feb. 11. “This resulted in a great deal of your grievance becoming illegible. So, when you claim in the Step 2 that the Step 1 response didn’t read your grievance perhaps it was because the Step 1 was in most part illegible. In addition, you claim that you are just looking for answer to questions about policy. Grievance Procedures is not the appropriate method for debating policy questions nor is it designed to address the policy questions you have posed. Please review AR 1350-03 Constituent Services Coordinator for more information about directing your concerns.”
DeCesaro didn’t seem interested in creating the kind of safe transition Clements envisioned his department providing to prisoners moving from solitary confinement to freedom.
Ebel had expressed his mental health struggles in poems to his mother, Jody Mangue, and in letters and poetry he sent to a project called “Incarcerated Voices.” Those writings, submitted four and six months before his release, were obtained by The Colorado Independent.
His June 27, 2012, submission, coming just months before his release, included three poems on violence, mortality, his identity and the role he might play outside prison.
In a poem called “Life,” he wrote:
I’ve looked in the mirror and don’t even recognize
This thing staring back at me
Though I see your death implicit in its eyes
And really that’s all I care to see.
In an essay sent to “Incarcerated Voices” Sept. 12, 2012, Ebel contemplated murder:
If I kill to further the aims of the American government, however base and ignoble they may be, it is not only sanctioned but celebrated… Conversely, if I kill in the name of my own interests as an individual, however noble and just my reasons for doing so, I’m vilified.
Dr. Scott Washington, a director at Incarcerated Voices, said Ebel’s letters came among hundreds of others from prisoners and went unnoticed until his office checked its files for Ebel’s name after the Clements shooting.
“It’s clear that solitary changed him. He didn’t recognize himself in the mirror,” said Washington, himself a former prisoner. “Ideally, somebody would have been working with him to address those problems before he was released.”
Ebel kept writing about his adjustment problems after his release. The Independent obtained dozens of text messages he sent to Ryan Pettigrew, who was released last summer after having served time in Ebel’s unit at Colorado State Penitentiary. The texts span from Feb. 1, four days after Ebel’s release, to March 5, less than two weeks before Ebel went on his shooting spree. Ebel had told Pettigrew about the panic attacks he was having in the free world.
“He was saying that he couldn’t sleep and was having a hard time eating and being around people. He didn’t want to have any associations with anybody. He was feeling extremely anxious. It was all the same stuff I was experiencing when I got out. He was a lot like me,” Pettigrew said.
One text from mid February shows Ebel asking Pettigrew to fight with him as a way to release tension.
“I’m just feeling peculiar & the only way I know I know to remedy that is via use of ‘violence’ even if that ‘violence’ be something as petty & inconsequential as a fist fight which id prefer be with someone I can trust as opposed to some renegade civilian who odds are will tell.”
Inmate Troy Anderson, who spent years in prison units with Ebel at CSA and Sterling Correctional Facility, received a goodbye letter two weeks before Ebel’s death. As Anderson wrote to The Independent, “He didn’t feel like he belonged” in the free world. “He was consumed by what they did to him” in prison.
“You know, what they do through their solitary policies is akin to rape. They steal such a precious part of our souls, our humanity, our ability to be. They committed such hateful acts on us. Through contempt and disdain they breed rage,” Anderson continued. “They stole his chance at any real future.”
Herman wonders if Ebel even knew of the reforms Clements was making. Clements hadn’t been in charge long enough for the change in culture to become apparent to most prisoners, he said. Herman noted that it takes six or seven years for “a director’s vision to trickle down to the population and for offenders to see, day to day, that this guy is really changing the culture of the organization.” In other words, from Ebel’s perspective, the Corrections Department may have looked the same as it did under the last director, Ari Zavaras. Clements’ reforms didn’t seem to benefit Ebel, who had an altercation during his brief period in a step-down program in late 2012 that landed him back in isolation before his release. He likely didn’t know that the man he would kill was trying to fix what, as he wrote, had broken him.
“I don’t know that Evan knew Tom’s story. And I don’t know if Tom knew Evan’s story. But people around them knew both stories – one crying out for help and the other trying to give people that help,” Herman said. “What’s so hard to take is that they probably never crossed paths until that night at Tom’s house, that one horrible moment.”
Tragedy, conjecture, speculation
Alison Morgan, the DOC spokeswoman, got a text message from Hickenlooper’s spokesman Eric Brown at about 9 p.m. on March 19. “Are you ok?” it read. She wrote back “Why wouldn’t I be?” thinking Brown had meant to text somebody else. A few minutes later a DOC colleague phoned her to say, “I have the most horrible news in the world to tell you.” He paused. She told him to just say it, quickly.
After learning Clements had been shot, Morgan headed to her closet and grabbed an overnight bag she keeps ready in case of emergencies.
“Some of us haven’t had a chance to grieve over this,” she said. “From the night the call came about Tom, we knew that he would have wanted us to move on and work.”
At the state capitol, news of Clements’ death came during a hearing on a bill to abolish the death penalty, which was stretching late into the night.
Conjecture about the shooting started immediately in the lobby outside the hearing room. First, there was speculation – and subsequent stories by the mainstream news media citing anonymous sources – that Clements’ murder related to his decision a week before his death not to allow Homaidan al-Turki, a Saudi national accused of enslaving and sexually assaulting his housekeeper, to serve out the rest of his prison term in Saudi Arabia. The theory wasn’t supported by evidence. It infuriated Colorado’s Muslim community, which accused several news outlets of racial bias.
Unsupported news stories also speculated that Saudis had hired the 211 Crew, Ebel’s former gang, to carry out the assassination.
Headlines later focused on a clerical mistake made by a district court that caused Ebel to be released from prison in late January without serving additional time for a plea agreement he made in connection with assaulting the prison guard. News reports also pointed fingers at the DOC’s parole department. Parole records show Ebel had broken free of his ankle bracelet and was at large for at least five days before officers issued a warrant for his arrest. The error was among hundreds made by state parole officers who have caseloads vastly exceeding system standards in many other states.
In the mainstream media’s rush to explain Clements’ murder, lurid rumors and Department mistakes provided easy answers.
“It’s human nature to look for something to blame. You grab at straws because understanding death is one of the most difficult things we can do,” Herman said.
“It’s understandable that the public focused on parole errors and the error that led to Ebel’s early release. But the much bigger issue is how DOC is going to prepare the 97 percent of prisoner who will one day be released to the public to be contributors to society,” Wallace added.
What nobody discussed, at least publicly, was what drove Ebel to kill Clements. It was the elephant in the room. In their anger, those close to Clements found it difficult to look through the lens of his killer’s psyche and attempt to understand the motivations behind the attack. In their grief, it was tough to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that, despite all Clements’ progress lowering the percentage of inmates directly released from solitary confinement, one of them who most needed help slipped through the cracks and killed him.
The irony rattled White when the Governor’s office became aware of Ebel’s recent release directly from solitary.
“My first responsibility was to call and tell Lisa [Clements’ widow] what had happened and to explain to her that we hadn’t gotten to Evan,” she said. “I remember sitting on the floor crying and both of us saying ‘We have to fix this. Tom warned us.’”
An ‘unforgettable teachable moment’
At the memorial service, Lisa Clements told mourners that her husband “would want justice, certainly. But moreover, he would want forgiveness.”
Forgiving a man who carjacked and pointed guns at strangers, attacked a guard in prison and then killed a pizza delivery man for a uniform in which he would kill the state Corrections chief requires a leap, especially for a department in shock over the murder of its director. But the request invites a statewide discussion about what long-term solitary does to prisoners here and what kind of services they need to safely move back into Colorado neighborhoods. If nothing else, Clements’ death is more evidence that solitary confinement isn’t just an abstract ethical and legal question about torture and the “evolving standards of human decency” as defined by the 8th Amendment. It is, as Clements argued, an issue of immediate public safety.
“What Tom was about was how are people going to come back to our communities and be our neighbors,” White said. “Tom’s murder is an incomprehensible tragedy that has to motivate us to do corrections better. It’s just a tragedy that motivates me to remember.”
Hickenlooper’s appointment in June of Wisconsin’s former Corrections Chief Rick Raemisch to replace Clements was based in part, White said, on a commitment to carry on Clements’ legacy.
Clements left his department with a vastly improved system to classify the security risks posed by inmates. That system, insiders say, is based far more on science than on fear. White lauds Clements as the first Hickenlooper cabinet member to put his department’s strategic plan on the state website. She says it contains clear, measurable benchmarks that the public can use to gauge its effectiveness.
Still, much work needs to be done.
Although in his two years here Clements managed to reduce Colorado’s 1,297-person solitary confinement population to about 726 prisoners, about a quarter of those who remain in isolation could still, like Ebel, walk free without meaningful step-down programs.
Of those who remain in isolation, 87 are seriously mentally ill. Fifty-four of them have been in solitary confinement for more than a year and 14 have spent more than four years in isolation.
The ACLU’s Wallace notes that much of DOC’s progress addressing her group’s concerns halted after Clements’ death. Citing a letter in which Clements promised a policy would be drafted requiring mental health professionals to participate in disciplinary decisions made about seriously mentally ill prisoners — particularly those in ad seg – she said to date she has no knowledge that such a policy has been drafted.
“The conversation has stalled,” she said.
The ACLU also has concerns that some mentally ill prisoners who have been transferred out of administrative segregation into what the department calls a “residential treatment program” may be living in conditions just as severe and isolated as administrative segregation.
“We hope these concerns are addressed by Director Raemisch,” Wallace said.
Herman, a 40-year veteran of corrections work, said that “as long as you’ve still got people who are about to go out into the community and there’s no intervention, no preparation for personal human interaction and communication, you’re setting up what could be another tragedy for us all.”
“If I was killed by this individual and Tom was here, he would look at it from every angle,” he added. “I’d hope to heck that if I died under these circumstances, it would be a seriously unforgettable teachable moment.”
Susan Greene’s reporting has been supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.