Rick Raemisch, Colorado’s new corrections director, wanted to better understand the experience of solitary confinement – so he spent a night in segregation at a state prison.
Raemisch had been on the job for seven months when he decided to stay overnight in an ad seg cell at the Colorado State Penitentiary. “I thought he was crazy,” said Warden Travis Trani, who added, “I also admired him for wanting to have the experience.” Trani received only nine hours notice that his boss was arriving for an extended visit.
On January 23, 2014, just after 7:00 p.m., Raemisch, handcuffed and shackled and wearing a prison uniform, entered cell 22. He was classified as “RFP,” or “Removed From Population.” After being uncuffed through the food slot he was left alone in the 7-by-13-foot cell.
In an editorial published in The New York Times on February 20, Raemisch said 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,” he wrote. “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.”
Raemisch then described some of the day-to-day routine that prisoners in solitary endure for years – sometimes decades.
“[T]here 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…. 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 a.m. 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,” he wrote.
After Raemisch, 61, took over as Colorado’s top prison official following the murder of his predecessor, Tom Clements, by a prisoner who was released directly from solitary, he decided to continue Clements’ efforts to curtail the use of long-term segregation. Clements had reduced Colorado’s solitary population from about 1,500 to 726; Raemisch has since cut that number to under 600.
Raemisch shared his experience at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the topic of solitary confinement in February 2014, saying segregation was “overused, misused, and abused” in America’s prisons. His comments were received by many well-wishers, including officials with the ACLU, who joked that other corrections commissioners might want to take “the Colorado challenge.”
Predictably, some criticized Raemisch for being “soft” on criminals or for trying to grandstand through his brief stint in solitary.
Raemisch said he was moved by the experience. “Everything you know about treating human beings, [segregation’s] not the way to do it,” he stated. “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.”
Raemisch spent just 20 hours in segregation – a short time, but long enough to make a lasting impression. On average, Colorado prisoners sent to solitary stay 23 months.
At least one other corrections chief has served time in segregation to gain empirical experience of what it’s like. On May 2, 2014, New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel, 53, entered cell 106 in E pod at the state penitentiary in Santa Fe for a 48-hour visit.
“I can tell you, pacing it, I had five large paces from the edge of my bed to the door. I traveled that route quite a bit,” he said. “It’s where I ate, where I exercised, where my toilet was. I didn’t, for 48 hours, speak a word. I did internal dialog, but I didn’t speak a word to another person.”
Marcantel said he wanted the experience to be as authentic as possible, even though he knew it was for only a short time. He spent the first day under conditions of adminstrative seg and the last day in disciplinary segregation.
“There are just things sometimes that you gotta feel, you gotta taste, and you gotta hear and you gotta smell,” he noted.
Although he tried to play the part – arriving in restraints, wearing prison clothes, growing a beard to hide his appearance and pretending to be deaf and mute so he wouldn’t have to speak – other prisoners in the unit became suspicious and assumed he was a cop.
Marcantel said it got “ugly” and “tense.”
His brief time in solitary was recorded on a video camera as he paced, read books, looked out the cell window and ate prison food.
“You start after a while to count everything, because that’s how you kind of grab a little bit of control,” he observed. “You become a lot more detail-oriented about what your environment looks like.”
Marcantel said he made several policy changes based on his experience in segregation; according to one news report, 60 to 80 New Mexico state prisoners have since been moved from solitary confinement to the general prison population.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, www.abqjournal.com, Wisconsin State Journal, www.kob.com
(First published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)