Mimesis Law
6 December 2019

So Lonely Anyone Would Cry: Head of CO Corrections Visits The Hole

June 20, 2016 (Fault Lines) — When the head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections speaks out against solitary confinement, people listen.  It’s as if a priest came out and told us that there is no god: evidence against interest speaks volumes.  After Rick Raemisch placed himself in solitary confinement for 20 hours to get taste of what over 100 thousand American prisoners a year endure at one point or another, Raemisch “got it.”  From The Crime Report:

As he planned his own stint in solitary back in 2014, Raemisch imagined it would be a good time to catch up on sleep.

Instead, Raemisch found himself counting nicks in the wall. He paced. He lost track of track time. He craned his neck to catch a glimpse of sky, and he strained to hear a nearby inmate’s TV. The yelling and glare of lights kept him awake for all but a few minutes at a time. At 11 a.m. the next day, he broke his own rule and asked what time it was. Still four hours to go.

Whether it’s referred to as solitary, isolation, segregation, the hole, or as the “SHU” (federal prison’s “Special Housing Unit), most learned minds will call it torture or cruel and unusual punishment.  Groups that have been asked to take a peek into this practice have concluded that it’s capricious and counterproductive.  And in our the U.S. system of corrections, inmates are thrown in the hole for a variety of “reasons”: for petty retaliation, as a form of punishment, or for simply talking back to a guard.  But the people in charge of administering this insanity have the blinders on: just last year, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons told a congressional committee “We do not practice solitary confinement.”

People in deportation administrative removal proceedings are sometimes tossed in the hole while waiting for a hearing, or before being sent back home by immigration and customs.  There are some who have been kept in solitary for decades.  Yes, decades.  And there are those wretched, luckless souls like Kalief Browder who end up taking their lives at the end of their “sentence” in isolation.

So even if we assume that it’s kosher to put someone in solitary, whether as punishment or as a safety measure, the conclusion is that it’s against the collective best interest because the person coming out of the hole – whether into the prison general population or society — is now a ticking time bomb.  That is one more person off his rocker who will be put back into circulation.  This is why states like California and New York have begun to overhaul their solitary protocols, and Raemisch has led the way in Colorado:

The reason this cell at Centennial South remains relatively unmarked is that, except for about two years from 2010 to 2012, it has not been used. Colorado’s rapid shift away from solitary confinement — from 1,500 prisoners in 2011 down to 185 as of May — has left the state with a $200 million empty all-solitary prison in Cañon City.

[Raemisch who now heads Colorado’s prison system, was secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections from 2007 until Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011.]

Before the changes, Colorado held some violent or hard-to-manage inmates in isolation for more than 24 years. The state eliminated the use of such long-term, indefinite solitary confinement in 2014; inmates now serve no more than one year in that status, formerly known as administrative segregation and now called restrictive housing-maximum security.

Ask any experienced defense attorney, and she will tell you what it’s like to look into the eyes of a client who has been kept in isolation.  It’s hopelessness incarnate.  Ask any inmate who has the misfortune of visiting solitary, and at the very least he will tell you about the trauma, of the pointlessness of the ordeal.  Raemisch described his experience in the hole:

As he looks around the white-walled room, Raemisch declares it fairly similar to the 7-foot by 13-foot cell where in 2014, as head of Colorado’s corrections system, he had himself locked up.

In this cell, he notes the tiny window looking out toward a gravel yard and a concrete wall. There is a stainless steel sink, toilet and a mirror made of metal. The solid purple door has a narrow slot that looks out to a common area.

“The problem with this cell, there’s nothing to count,” Raemisch says, noting the smooth walls. “There’s no chips. There’s no scrapes. There’s no dents. You got nothing to count in here.”

Ironically, the concept of solitary confinement was introduced by the Quakers and the Anglicans in the 1800s, as they wanted to “free” inmates from the horrors of overcrowding, chain gangs, and inhumane conditions of the general population.   The road to hell is paved with…

Today, solitary confinement remains hardwired in U.S. prisons.  Raemisch putting himself through a stint in solitary, no matter how brief, gave him a glimpse into the hellhole his inmates were being sent to, and it gave him the spark to put a stop to this madness in Colorado.  The hole has driven countless prisoners into madness.  Feeling lonely in the hole drove Raemisch to become an agent for change.

9 Comments on this post.

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  • Richard G. Kopf
    21 June 2016 at 8:06 am - Reply

    Mario,

    While I am more knowledgeable than most lay people, in truth I know very little about the proper management of a prison and even less about management of solitary confinement. That admitted I don’t think solitary confinement is an all or nothing proposition. Still further, federal judges out to play a very limited role in passing upon the policy of solitary confinement.

    First, fairly simple changes can be made to the regimen of solitary confinement to make it less psychologically traumatic. Access to the outside world such as by radio or TV could be provided even in the most secure situations using ear buds with the radio or TV (or even internet devices) controlled from a central station. Some seg. prisoners could be feed together in small groups. Others could be provided access to a day room in small groups. All of these “extra” could be provided through an incentive-based system–where such privileges are earned. The list goes on.

    Furthermore, many of the seg. prisoner are, I suspect, teetering on the brink of mental illness each and every day and that is what resulted in their placement in seg. in the first place. Regular and real attention to the psychiatric needs of those in seg. might reap real benefits too

    Second, there will be a certain segment of the prison population for which nothing but a bare room and no or little human contact will be a necessity because of the extreme danger they pose to others. For those, the “hole” may truly be the only plausible management technique that is practical.

    Finally, the one thing I do know is this: Justice Kennedy and his brethren and the other federal judges of this nation ought to keep out of the solitary confinement issue. Except in the most extreme cases, solitary confinement is an ordinary incident of prison life beyond the scope of review of federal judges even if your conception of “cruel and unusual” is expensive. We simply lack the training or knowledge to order systemic change. As in many other endeavors, it would be far more likely that we federal judges will do more harm than good.

    Thanks for your post. It was fascinating and provoked me to think about a subject that is likely to find its way into the federal courtrooms of our country on a more frequent basis.

    All the best.

    RGK

    • shg
      21 June 2016 at 8:12 am - Reply

      If judges should “keep out of the solitary confinement issue,” because it’s an “ordinary incident of prison life” (like prison rape or guards setting up gladiator fights for kicks and profit?), who then decides? Kinda makes that whole checks and balances concept ring very hollow when it’s left to the screws “prison experts” to decide for themselves what’s acceptable without any outside scrutiny.

      For better or worse, judges are pretty much all we’ve got.

      • Richard G. Kopf
        21 June 2016 at 10:04 am - Reply

        SHG,

        Sure, but I am tentatively inclined to think that banning solitary confinement as per se violative of the Eighth Amendment is a reach too far. In fact, there is no real agreement what “solitary confinement” means in the hundreds of prisons (or more) where the term might be applied.

        But I do agree that prison reform like banning solitary confinement helps us all feelz better.

        All the best.

        RGK

        • shg
          21 June 2016 at 10:22 am - Reply

          Per se? They tried the same thing with the Iron Maiden. Look how that worked out.

          • Richard G. Kopf
            21 June 2016 at 11:52 am -

            SHG,

            Ah, the good old days!

            All the best.

            RGK

    • Mario Machado
      22 June 2016 at 5:43 pm - Reply

      Judge Kopf,

      Thank you for your insight. But with regards to the incentive-based system that would provide TVs and the such to those in solitary, that would be the proverbial band aid on the gushing wound. I’m by no means an expert, but most of the stuff I’ve read on solitary indicates that the inmate’s mind goes “blank” and ceases to properly function. I’ve read about solitary inmates in California state prison being allowed such amenities, but they were still flying off the wall. And it will take a lot before the BOP allows any such things in the SHU.

      I remember when I was a (much) younger attorney and suggested to a client in solitary that I send him some books and that he do some push ups. I will never forget the response: he looked at me as if I was the crazy one and told me “la mente no esta para eso” (Spanish for “my mind is not available for that”)

      As for those inmates who pose an extreme danger, I agree that there are may be some who really need to be cut off the general population. But my objection is to how widely the tool of isolation is (ab)(mis)used, and the capricious manner in which minor transgressions are enough to send someone to the hole. And here’s something else we must consider: once that maniac is put in solitary for a long time, and is eventually released back into society as a super nut-job because of isolation, what do we do?

      I second SHG in that, as per checks and balances, there must be a recourse for those enduring torture and abuse at the hands of prison guards, and that recourse must be the courts. The alternative would be to ask the prison itself to fix the problem on its own (which the warden may perceive as an admission of guilt/responsibility), or to write to the local congressman so that he makes a call to the warden. In other words, where would we go if the warden tells us to STFU and/or “yeah he’s in the hole for 2 months for winking at the guard. So what, make me?”

      As for the court’s training and knowledge with regards to this issue, I believe that the federal courts tackle much more complex/intricate issues everyday (e.g., tax disputes, mergers & acquisitions). Plus, litigants can aid the court with properly vetted experts that can help the judge make a just decision on these cases.

      The best to you and yours Judge.

      Mario

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