“You Can Feel Your Sanity Being Leeched Out Of You”

Posted in: Criminal Law

In my last column, I started to explain why criminal justice reform looks the way it does. I had thought I would continue that discussion here, but I spent last week inside a number of Colorado prisons, where I interviewed more than a dozen men about their time in solitary confinement, as well as several senior officials in the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), including the Executive Director, the Director of Prisons, and the wardens in three different facilities. Because the criminal justice system is ultimately about the millions of people inside it—on both sides of the steel door—their stories should have pride of place. Everything else can wait.

Until fairly recently, solitary in Colorado (or administrative segregation, as Colorado calls it) meant confinement 23 hours/day in a 7’ x 13’ windowless, white, cinderblock cell, locked behind a solid steel door. Inside the cell there was a steel bunk with a two-inch mattress and blanket, a steel toilet, and a steel shelf. For most men, the 24th hour meant being transported, in shackles, to another cell a few feet away, identical in all respects except for a chin-up bar and a narrow slit in the exterior wall, which allowed men to see but not feel the sun. This was called “rec,” for recreation. Every 72 hours, they were given a 15 minute shower.

Taken together, the men I interviewed spent nearly a century locked down. One served 19 years in solitary; another, 14. There was a time in Colorado when a decade in “ad seg” was not uncommon. I met with a man, now 65 years old, who began his time in solitary before the prison allowed prisoners to earn the right to purchase a radio or TV. He said he just stared at the ceiling and played with cockroaches in the toilet. He was locked down for nine years.

There was no programming to speak of. Every now and again, a packet might be passed through the trap in the cell door. The men were told to complete the assignments and return the material. They never knew whether anyone read what they had written, but they were assured it would be held against them if they refused to participate, prolonging their time in segregation. The packets were on anger management, and this was their therapy.

The destructive effect of long-term social isolation is widely known. But research shows it does not affect everyone the same way, so I asked the men how they handled the weeks and months that blurred into years, with little to occupy them but their demons. Not surprisingly, most just shrugged; few people can put into words an experience the human mind was never meant to endure, and I came to recognize their wordlessness as the very effect I sought to understand. It was easier for them to recount the effect this confinement had on others. “I seen a lot of people go crazy, lose touch with reality,” one man told me, “but I just refused to let it affect me.” Then he added, “It probably affected me in ways I don’t even know.”

“I hated it,” one young man said, “the lack of physical contact and social interaction.” Martin (not his real name) put the experience in a way I’d never heard before. “It makes you introspective,” with nothing to keep your thoughts from running off the rails. “It’s like, a pinball is always getting knocked back to the center, where it’s supposed to be.” But in solitary, “with no outside interactions, you never get your thoughts bounced back into normal. You’re just on your own and your thoughts get weird. And I was like watching it happen to myself, I could feel it happening, with no idea if it was rational or insane.”

He struggled to describe the sensation as he felt his grip on reality slipping away. “It’s like freezing to death,” he said, “or at least what people say freezing is like. It’s uncomfortable at first and you can’t stand it, but you get used it, and just before you leave out the gate, you feel warm.” In solitary, he said, “you can feel your sanity being leeched out of you.” Now in his mid-30s, Martin has been locked up since he was 18. He is serving a 30 year sentence for killing a woman.

Despite the effect it has on people, Colorado—like many states—badly misused segregation. People on the outside commonly assume solitary is reserved for the men and women who commit the most serious infractions in prison, and that reducing solitary will endanger the staff. In a report released last year, the VERA Institute of Justice put the lie to these and other myths. But the officials I spoke with didn’t need to read VERA’s report to know the truth it contained. Steve Hager is the Director of Prisons in Colorado. “In our business,” he told me, “it’s so easy to shut that door.” And that’s what Colorado did. DOC was “a policy-driven organization,” Hager said, and even minor transgressions were punished severely. Colorado opened a supermax prison in 1993, “and it was easy to fill,” Hager told me. “We just locked down the difficult offenders, shipped everybody to ad seg.”

Hager and his colleagues look back with embarrassment at some of the things they used to do. In the old days, for instance, nearly half the ad seg prisoners in Colorado were released directly from solitary to the street. I met one of those men. Just after midnight, officers shackled him up, took him out of ad seg, gave him one bag with his meds and another with his property, and put him in a van. They drove him to the side of the highway in Colorado Springs, took off the shackles, pointed down a side street, and said, “The parole office is a 30 minute walk down that road. Good luck to you.” He had spent the last two years with almost no human contact. “I stashed my property in a bush,” he told me, “took all my meds, and started walking. I almost got hit by a car.” He was back in prison 90 days later.

One of the men released from solitary to the street was Evan Ebel. Seven weeks after his release in 2013, Ebel killed a pizza delivery driver, but only after forcing him to read a rambling statement into a tape recorder, which was later transcribed by the authorities:

You didn’t give two shits about us or our families and you ensured that we were locked behind a door, to disrespect us at every opportunity, so why should we care about you and yours. In short you treated us inhumanely, and so we simply seek to do the same, and we take [comfort] in the knowledge that we leave your wives without husbands, and your children fatherless. You wanted to play the mad scientist, well they will be your Frankenstein.

Two days later, Ebel, dressed in the delivery driver’s uniform, knocked on the door of a home in Monument, Colorado, near Colorado Springs. When the owner opened the door, Ebel shot him in the chest. It was Tom Clements, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. He died in his wife’s arms. Ebel fled and was killed in a shootout with police in Texas.

Ironically, it was Clements who started Colorado down the road to reform. He made it his mission to reduce the use of solitary as much as possible. In his two years on the job, he demanded more frequent and thorough reviews for the men in segregation. No longer would people be cast into segregation and forgotten, kept there by administrative inertia rather than institutional need. Clements also created initiatives and programs to get the men out of isolation and into therapy and classes, gradually increasing their interaction with staff and other offenders. During his tenure, Colorado’s ad seg population dropped by nearly half.

Several of the men I met were finally released from segregation as a result of the programs and reviews initiated during Clements’ tenure. Almost to a man, they credited Clements with getting them out of solitary confinement and deplored his murder. “That was messed up,” one man told me. “I was like, what you want to kill him for? He the one trying to make it better. He the first one working for us.

After Clements’ assassination, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appointed Rick Raemisch, the former head of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, to replace him. When he started in July 2013, Raemisch vowed to continue Clements’ reforms and has approached the task with great dedication and moral urgency. Today, there are no seriously mentally ill offenders in solitary confinement in Colorado. There are no women in solitary. No offenders are released directly from solitary to the street. The number of people in ad seg has been reduced by about 90 percent, from roughly 1,500 when Clements first became director to the current total of about 150. And all of those men are given the opportunity—and strongly encouraged—to participate in group and individual therapy outside the cell. Meanwhile, assaults on both staff and inmates are down dramatically.

Colorado has taken long and admirable strides toward reform, and the policies in place only a few years ago are now gone. To be sure, conditions are not ideal, and no one thinks otherwise. Some advocacy groups complain, for instance, that mentally ill offenders remain in segregation, and claim that DOC tinkered with the definition of “seriously mentally ill” to make its numbers look good. They also complain that the programs created by Clements and Raemisch still permit extended social isolation. And no one remotely thinks the Colorado DOC has enough resources to provide all the programming needed. Yet everyone in the advocacy community with whom I have spoken acknowledges that conditions are vastly improved from the old days. Perhaps more significantly, so did the men I met.

In any case, policies are just words on a page; every prison in the country has policies that assure humane treatment for offenders. Far more important is the new culture taking hold in the Colorado DOC—a culture that treats the men and women in prison as human beings entitled to dignity and capable of redemption. The transformation from old to new is forever a work in progress (a fact as true for the offenders as it is for the staff), and the officials I met were the first to admit they have a long way to go. But they are proud of what they have achieved, and the men in their custody and care are grateful.