Legislature

Bill addresses isolated confinement for prisoners

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Another prison reform bill, spurred by last year’s murder of a Department of Corrections director, is advancing through the Legislature.

Senate Bill 64 would prohibit prisons from placing inmates who have serious mental illnesses in isolated confinement, unless exigent circumstances persist.

The bill aims to shed better light on mental health issues behind bars, especially since most inmates end up being released back into their communities after serving time.

“These individuals, some of them have spent years in administrative segregation,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, a bill sponsor, during an April 21 House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Salazar’s bill — which has the support of the DOC and the American Civil Liberties Union — also creates a board that will examine issues pertaining to mentally ill inmates and isolated confinement.

Denise Maes of ACLU Colorado told the committee that inmates can sometimes spend more than 20 hours of their day in solitary confinement, inside “cells that are a little bigger than a king size bed.”

Those inmates, Maes said, are seven times more likely to commit suicide than those who reside in the general prison population.

“This kind of confinement will only render one even more mentally ill,” Maes said. “I’ve often said, `If you are not mentally ill going into solitary confinement, you certainly will be when you come out.’”

Ten percent of the Colorado prison population have serious mental illnesses, while about 35 percent have at least some sort of mental health needs, according to Kelly Wasco, the DOC’s director of clinical services.

Wasco said that the DOC, beginning with Clements and continuing with current director Rick Raemisch, has taken steps in recent years to reduce the numbers of prisoners with mental illnesses who are placed in solitary confinement.

The department has implemented a program that moves inmates with mental health problems from isolated confinement to in-house treatment.

What lawmakers and DOC officials all want to avoid is another Evan Ebel.

Ebel spent much of time in prison in solitary confinement. Ebel was released and was suspected of gunning down former DOC director Tom Clements outside of his Monument home last year.

Ebel — who was also suspected of killing a pizza delivery driver leading up to Clements’ murder — fled the state after the murders and was later killed during a shoot-out with Texas authorities.

Lawmakers who support the legislation hope to prevent future cases like Ebel’s.

“Some of these people, perhaps most of them, are going to be released at some point,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “Because of that, it does invoke public safety considerations.”

The bill passed the committee unanimously. It then received initial approval following a voice vote in the House on April 25 and was expected to formally pass the chamber this week.

The legislation had previously passed the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City.

The bill is one of a few pieces of legislation introduced this year that has come as a result of Ebel’s murder; efforts that included a separate bill that toughens penalties on offenders who tamper with electronic monitoring devices while on parole.