As the newly appointed executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch spent the night of Jan. 23 in solitary confinement at a state penitentiary.
Why? Because upon appointment, Gov. John Hickenlooper set before Raemisch three goals:
- Limit or eliminate the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners
- Address the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods of time
- Reduce the number of prisoners released directly from solitary back into their communities
While Colorado prisoners who are put in solitary spend an average of 23 months there, Raemisch’s 20 hours spent alone in a cell provided him with a small glimpse of what these prisoners’ needs may be.
In a 7-foot-by-13-foot room where no personal property was allowed, he listened to distant conversations and many other noises that left him feeling “paranoid.” He lost track of time as he stared at the ” tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.” He was awakened many times during the night by officers checking the security of his cell door and doing routine prisoner counts. He writes, “As executive director, I praise the dedication, but as someone trying to sleep and rest my mind — forget it.”
Raemisch left his cell with a raised sense of urgency toward his three goals.
Studies show solitary confinement to be an environment that fosters anger issues, anxiety, and paranoia, even in the most stable of humans. Unfortunately, many prisoners who are sent to solitary have been diagnosed with a pre-existing mental illness that is only exacerbated by an extreme lack of social interaction.
While extracting a trouble-making prisoner from the rest of the prison population may serve as a quick fix for prison safety, the overuse of this method does nothing to improve the functionality of the corrections system in the long run. Because isolation provides no opportunities for the rehabilitation of the prisoner, these prisoners are much more likely to circle back into the prison system after release. Without the chance to grow healthy relationships, to work toward an education, to hear the values in God’s Word and study them with others, prisoners will return to the community even farther behind in life than when they entered. And this brings the corrections system no closer to successfully protecting communities from crime.
One recidivism study shows that prisoners released into society directly from solitary are twice as likely to return to prison as others prisoners are. Raemisch’s predecessor as executive director cut back on Colorado’s use of solitary by nearly half before being assassinated by a prisoner who had been released directly from isolation into society. Raemisch says, “Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better.”
Some jurisdictions that have cut back on the use of solitary confinement, like Colorado, have found success in providing behavior improvement programs for prisoners, incentives for their good behavior, and smaller prison communities for prisoners facing certain difficulties. Another successful plan has been providing training for prison staff on motivational strategies and how to communicate with prisoners who have cognitive disabilities.
New York recently agreed to reforms that will greatly limit the use of solitary confinement, and last week Justice Fellowship’s President Craig DeRoche testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee during a hearing on the reassessment of solitary confinement. Justice Fellowship supports reforms that allow for prisoner rehabilitation, responsible use of taxpayer dollars, and the safety of our communities. To learn more about Justice Fellowship’s work in the area of solitary confinement, please visit their website.