I told people: “If I was the bus driver, I’d stand up and scream at the top of my lungs, ‘Run!’” When we talked internally about it, the cynical ex-cop in me said, “Let me get this straight. You’ve deemed someone too dangerous to be in the general population of a maximum-security facility, being supervised by those that are trained to supervise them, yet you release them directly into the community? What the hell’s the matter with us?” You might as well just stamp “Return to prison” on their forehead.
At what time did it become okay to lock someone in a seven-by-13-foot cell or smaller for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, for over 20 years? At what time did it become okay to take someone that’s mentally ill and put him in a seven-by-13-foot cell for 23 hours a day letting the demons chase them around in that cell? At what time did it become okay to take someone that has spent years in solitary confinement and release them directly into the community?
We’ve changed all that. We haven’t released anybody from segregation—restrictive housing, as it’s called now—directly from those units into the community from the state prison system since March of 2014.
Working with the legislature, our governor [John Hickenlooper], and the ACLU, we were able to pass a statute that, for the most part, prohibits putting someone who has been classified as seriously mentally ill into solitary. We’re the only state in the nation that, when someone goes into solitary, they know when they’re coming out. That’s a maximum of a year, and even then, that year is for the most serious offenses such as homicide or serious assault. But even that we’ve taken a step further. We put [developmental] program tables outside of our restrictive housing units, where on a volunteer basis, if inmates want to come out for programming—not just for that one hour [out of the cell] per day [they are designated], but to come out for additional programming plus the one hour per day—they can do that. We’re getting away, for the most part, from a legal definition of what’s considered restrictive housing or solitary confinement.
Lantigua-Williams: Are there any options for therapeutic services offered, now that you’re working based on the recognition that solitary can actually be more damaging?
Raemisch: Yes. In fact, we have two institutions that are dedicated to those that have mental-health issues. Solitary has been banned at both of those facilities. We also have policies that if a person is involved in a disciplinary incident, a team looks at the incident, and if it was determined that a mental-health problem caused that incident, they’re taken out of the disciplinary process and put into treatment programs. We started what’s called residential treatment programs, which are becoming a national model.
I tell people that when we started these reforms not only did we not have a map, we had no road—because none of this has been done before, so we had to invent things based on the experience of our clinicians. Some things would work. Some wouldn’t. But we developed what’s called a 10-in-10 program, which is starting out of their cells for 10 hours of therapy per week and then 10 hours of extracurricular activities. The purpose, of course, is to get them back into general population. We also had to develop step-down programs for those that had been in solitary for periods of time. You just can’t simply open the door and say, “You’re going back to general population. Have a good day.” That’s not going to work.