Rick Raemisch, Colorado’s new chief of the State Department of Corrections, decided that he wanted to better understand the experience of solitary confinement; so he decided to spend the night in segregation in one of the prisons he oversees.
Raemisch had been on the job for seven months when he decided to spend a night in the Ad Seg unit of Colorado’s Canon City State prison. The Warden, Travis Trani, said, “I thought he was crazy,” but added, “but I also admired him for wanting to have the experience.” Trani had only nine hours’ notice that his boss was coming. On January 23, 2014, at 7 p.m., Raemisch was delivered to Cell 22, handcuffed and shackled in a prison uniform. He was classified as “RFP”, or “Removed From Population.” After he was uncuffed through the food slot, Raemisch kicked back in his bunk in the 7 by 13 cell.
According to an editorial Raemisch wrote in the New York Times, the experience was challenging,
First thing you notice is that it’s anything but quiet. You’re immersed in a drone of garbled noise: other inmates, blaring TVs, distant conversations, shouted arguments. I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and was left feeling twitchy and paranoid. I kept waiting for the lights to turn off, to signal the end of the day. But the lights did not shut off. I began to count the small holes carved in the walls. Tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them. For a sound mind, those are daunting circumstances. But every prison in America has become a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and often the “worst of the worst,” some of society’s most unsound minds, are dumped in Ad. Seg.
The main light in my cellblock eventually turned off, and I fell into a fitful sleep, awakening every time a toilet flushed or an officer yanked on the doors to determine that they were secure. Then there were the counts. According to the Ad Seg rules, within every 24-hour period there are five scheduled counts and at least two random ones. They are announced over the intercom and prisoners must stand with their feet visible to the officer as he looks through the door’s small window. As executive director, I praise the dedication, but as someone trying to sleep and rest my mind, forget it. I learned later that a number of inmates make earplugs out of toilet paper. Too often, these prisoners are “maxed out,” meaning they are released from solitary directly into society. In Colorado, in 2012, 140 people were released into the public from Ad Seg; last year, 70; so far in 2014, two. When 6:15 a.m. and breakfast finally came, I brushed my teeth, washed my face, did two sets of push-ups, and made my bed. I looked out my small window, saw that it was still dark outside, and thought, now what?
Raemisch said that by 11:30 the next day, he broke a promise to himself and asked a guard what time it was. “I felt like I had been there for days. I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away. I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose.”
Raemisch, 60, took over as Colorado’s top prison official after his predecessor, Tom Clements, was gunned down at his home by a former prisoner who, ironically, had spent years in solitary confinement. Raemisch has decided to continue Clements’ efforts to reduce the use of long-term segregation, on the basis that many prisoners didn’t need to be there. He was known to have expressed concerns about the common practice of his releasing prisoners from long-term isolation directly to the streets. Clements’ killer, Evan S. Ebel, was such a person. He died in a shootout with police.
Clements had reduced Colorado’s solitary population from about 1,500 to 726; Raemisch has decreased that number to 577.
Raemisch shared his segregation experience with a Senate subcommittee meeting on the topic of solitary confinement, telling Congress that segregation was “overused, misused, and abused” in America’s prisons. Raemisch was met with many well-wishers, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, who joked that other commissioners might want to take “the Colorado challenge.”
Predictably, others have criticized Raemisch for being “soft” on criminals.
Raemisch was moved by the experience. “Everything you know about treating human beings, [segregation’s] not the way to do it,” he said. Raemisch wrote that he was quite motivated to change things. “When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform. If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.”
(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)