Colorado moves to end solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners

In a Colorado Department of Corrections memo sent Tuesday, Interim Director Lou Archuleta directed wardens across the state to no longer house mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.

Archuleta wrote that the prisoners should instead now be sent to treatment units.

The memo is being lauded as an “enormous first step” by the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, which has for years been working to end what it has characterized as an unacceptable default policy in the state of relying on longterm solitary confinement “to manage mentally ill prisoners.”

“Barring seriously mentally ill prisoners from administrative segregation is an enormous step in the right direction, but it addresses only one of several demands the ACLU has made of CDOC on this issue,” said Staff Attorney Rebecca Wallace in a release sent Thursday night. “There is still much important work to be done.”

The ACLU is working with state Representative Jessie Ulibarri to introduce a bill this coming legislative session that would bar the practice of warehousing prisoners with serious psychological illnesses in solitary. The group has also pressed for more fully staffed mental health programs and has released a film, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” on the way mentally ill prisoners are given low-level treatment but still kept in solitary.

“We are hopeful that new Director [Rick] Raemish and his executive team are and will remain real partners for change.”

The widespread overuse of solitary confinement in Colorado’s state and federal facilities was underlined this year when Evan Ebel, shortly after his release from prison, murdered prisons Director Tom Clements. Ebel had been held in “ad-seg” for years and, as the Colorado Independent was first to report, before his release filed desperate and repeat complaints in which he expressed fear that he was not prepared to be released into society. He wrote that his years in solitary confinement had in effect “ruined” him for social interaction.

[ Image via ACLU, from Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The story of Sam Mandez. ]