Tom Clements Death: Prison Officials Acknowledge Chief's Death Tied To Solitary Confinement Policies

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Tom Clements, Chief Executive Director of Colorado Corrections was known by his friends, family, and affiliates as a compassionate man, dedicated to changing how Colorado Corrections deals with violent inmates locked away into solitary confinement for of lengthy periods of time.  Photo courtesy thedenverchannel.com

Clements had strong aspiration to do what it takes to build safe communities in Colorado. He was a visionary who foresaw how creating programs for inmates who are released from solitary confinement to society is connected to lowering recidivism rates, resulting in crime free neighborhoods.

Clements was a former director of operations for Missouri's twenty-one adult correctional institutions and overall management of 30,500 incarcerated offenders since 2007. He served in statewide leadership roles within the adult probation and parole system and in Missouri's adult correctional institutions system until he was hired by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in 2010 as Chief Executive Director of Colorado Corrections.  

When Governor Hickenlooper made the decision to hire Clements he announced, “Tom Clements has built a distinguished career working his up through the ranks in the Missouri corrections system.”

Hickenlooper announced, "He understands parole and probation programs and has extensive experience with community corrections. We are pleased he is bringing his expertise to Colorado."

During Clements’s two years running the agency, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement was nearly cut in half.

Unfortunately, Clements mission to improve Colorado Corrections was interrupted when he was gunned down on March 19th, 2013, by 28-year-old Evan Ebel, a convicted felon, and member of a white supremacy prison gang called 211 Crew. Clements was shot by Ebel when he answered the door at his residence in Colorado Springs.

Ebel, a parolee who spent most of his adult life in prison for robberies, menacing, weapons charges, threatening to kill a correctional officer, and assault on a correctional officer was released three-months early from prison on January 28th, 2013.

Ironically, the reason Ebel was released early from incarceration was mainly due to his participation in two cogitative development programs designed to entice troubled offenders from solitary confinement. The programs Ebel attended were supported by his victim, Mr. Tom Clements.

Five days after Ebel was released from incarceration, he cut-off his ankle bracelet.  Jack and Evan Ebel / Photo courtesy denverpost.com

Due to ineffective parole monitoring procedures, Ebel was free to go on a killing spree.  He shot pizza delivery driver, 27-year-old husband and father of three, Nathan Leon, suited himself with Leon’s delivery uniform, and proceeded to travel one-hour to Clements’ home in Colorado Springs where he was watching television with his wife, Lisa Clements. The couple was unaware of the tragedy that was about to take place. Ebel knocked on their door; Mr. Clements answered the door and was shot by Ebel. Clements’s wife witnessed her husband’s horrific death.

Ebel then drove his black 1991 Cadillac to Decatur, Texas, where he was gunned down by police in a high speed chase.  Authorities found maps, handwritten directions and documents from the Department of Corrections in Evan Spencer Ebel’s car. Also found were a Domino’s Pizza worker’s shirt and visor, a pizza carrier bag along with zip ties and duct tape. Investigators also found bomb-making materials and pants that appeared to have blood on them.

Colorado and Missouri’s correctional departments and officials are suffering from losing a man whom his close friend, John Morse confirmed at Clements’s memorial service, “was an amazing human being who cared deeply about people."

Clements’s daughter is planning a wedding in the near future, but sadly she will be walking down the aisle without her father in arm.    

Incredibly, Clements’s family is not angry at their loved one’s killer. The widow of slain prisons chief shared at his memorial that she is praying for forgiveness "in our own hearts" for the gunman who shot Clements in the doorway of his home.

“Clements was haunted by the astounding 47% of offenders walking right out of ad-seg (solitary confinement) into our communities.

Clements quoted to Susan Greene, journalist for The Colorado Independent in a 2011 interview, “Forty-seven percent. That’s the number that keeps me awake at night.”

During his two years in Colorado, Clements pushed for a number of reforms in the state's prison system, including reevaluating how prisons provide treatment to mentally ill inmates and reducing the number of inmates in administrative segregation. He also backed lowering felony drug sentences to pay for more drug treatment programs.

Until 2011, inmates could not gain earned time while in solitary, but Clements supported a change in the law that year that allowed his agency to choose to reward prisoners in isolation who changed their behavior and became less of a security risk.

Ebel earned 25 days of early release due to that change, according to an accounting by the Department of Corrections, mostly between July and November of last year.

Ebel was allegedly infuriated at the correctional system for the inhumane way he was treated in prison and full of rage after spending a significant amount of his time incarcerated in solitary confinement.

It is unfortunate Clements and Ebel did not meet under different circumstances because they could have understood each other.

Ebel was not always the monster that was depicted at the time of his killing rampage.

Even though his parents divorced when Ebel was young, he had a decent childhood being raised by his devoted father, Jack Ebel, a well-respected gas and oil attorney. Mr. Ebel was a friend of Governor Hickenlooper, but Hickenlooper claims Ebel’s early release had nothing to do with his friendship with Jack Ebel.

Just two years ago, Jack Ebel testified in front of the Colorado State Legislature imploring lawmakers to consider other options for the mentally ill instead of solitary confinement. His son, he told them, would spend many hours in lock up by himself, and it severely affected him.

No one will ever know what went wrong in Ebel’s mind the day he was working in his father’s law office when he removed his ankle bracelet and left to kill two innocent people.

Ebel’s parents sent him to behavior programs for juveniles since he was 12-years-old when he started getting in trouble with the law. When Ebel was 16, he was confined and abused in the boot camp where he spent time.

Ebel was devastated by his little sister’s death in 2004, when she was killed in a car accident at age 16.

Even though Ebel was very intelligent, a talented artist, and book writer, he had a tattoo on his back that inscribed the word “hopeless.” But, no matter what, his father never gave up on him and had hope for his son until the day he died.

Perhaps Tom Clements would still be alive to complete his mission and Nathan Leon would be here to finish raising his young children; Evan Ebel would be a different man living a meaningful life if the correctional system had more humane methods of handling mentally disturbed criminals than confining them for indefinite amounts of time.   

American citizens who are inspired by Tom Clements’s unfinished quest can honor him by carrying on his legacy of advocating for changes within the correctional disciplinary system. Because no one is “hopeless.”