Solitary Confinement and the Mentally Ill

Dianne Frazee-Walker

After a major set-back the Colorado prison system is back on track.  Image courtesy www.upress.umn.edu

Before the death of Colorado Corrections director, Tom Clements, the Colorado DOC was working on reentry programs for mentally ill inmates released from solitary confinement.

Ironically, in March 2012, Evan Ebel, an inmate released directly from solitary confinement to the streets shot Mr. Clements in cold blood when he answered the door at his Colorado Springs home. Ebel was later tracked down by authorities in Texas and was fatally wounded in a police shoot out.

Sadly, Mr. Ebel targeted the wrong person upon whom to take out his anger against the correctional system because Clements was a strong advocate for changing solitary confinement policies.

Mr. Clements was a compassionate man who recognized the need for addressing the mental health issues of inmates who spent time in solitary confinement prior to release back into society. He was also dissatisfied with the number of inmates that were held in administrative segregation (aka ad seg) in Colorado Correctional facilities.

Just months shy of the one year anniversary of Clements’ death and the interruption of the progress the Colorado Correctional Department was making to solitary confinement policies, Kellie Wasko, the department’s executive director announced that “it was time to pick it back up and move on.”   

A significant amount of progress had been accomplished over the years even before Clements’s death.

Many Colorado Correctional policies that have been years in the making are now in effect.

Colorado inmates who display major mental illness symptoms are no longer sent to ad seg.

Last fall, the number of mentally ill prisoners locked away in ad seg for 23 hours a day progressively decreased from 40 in September to less than 30 in November. By December, the number went down to 8. The goal was for the number to be 0 by the end of 2014. The plan is to defer mentally ill inmates from ad seg to treatment facilities.

Last month The Colorado Department of Corrections replaced a program that treated mentally ill inmates during their stay in ad seg with a resident treatment program for mentally ill prisoners at Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colorado.

Before transferring dozens of prisoners to the treatment program, the department had to evaluate thousands of inmates to determine whether they had "major" mental illness. About 1,500 — or 8 percent of the prison population — was determined to have major mental illness.

Wasco confirms that not all prisoners with major mental illness will spend time in the residential treatment program. Many will live in general population if they can function there.

Since last fall, the state has transferred about 55 mentally ill prisoners into the residential treatment program. The 240-bed program had about 160 prisoners in September and by December reached about 215.

Improvements in the general ad seg population have been gradually developing for the last two years. The head count went from 1,500 in 2011 down to 662 in September.

A series of reforms proposed to more closely monitor parolees released from ad seg was publicized by Colorado Correctional officials in December.

Even though Colorado Correctional Department is making strides in changing the way mentally ill prisoners are handled and decreasing the ad seg population, there are still some obstacles to be worked out. 

The new residential treatment facility for mentally ill prisoners is not much of an upgrade from ad seg. One prisoner only spent an average of 12 minutes a week in individual therapy during the first six months of treatment.

The problem is there are not enough therapists. The treatment program will not effectively serve mentally ill prisoners until the state hires more therapists. The state will need more money to pay the additional therapists and motivation to hire them.

The future of the Colorado Department of Correction’s modification of how mentally ill inmates are dealt with and solitary confinement policies looks promising, but as with any criminal justice process, it will take time.