Correcting Corrections

By Dunia Dickey

No mention of Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) Executive Director Rick Raemisch can be made without reference to the leadership and courage he has shown by dramatically reducing the number of prisoners kept in solitary confinement inside Colorado prisons.

Raemisch (“Please call me Rick, Mr. Raemisch is my father”) drew national attention by writing an op-ed in The New York Times describing his experience spending 20 hours in solitary confinement. Subsequently, he has become a national leader on the issue, testifying at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the overuse of solitary confinement and speaking at Yale Law School and my alma mater, New York University School of Law.  Most significantly, Raemisch has reduced the number of Colorado inmates in solitary confinement from approximately 700 at the start of his tenure to 153 as of January 2, 2015, representing less than 1% of the entire DOC prison population – with corresponding declines of incidents in all but one category of prisoner on staff assaults.

I had read his articles and was aware of Raemisch’s commitment to reducing solitary confinement numbers. I had even testified before the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Senate Bill 64 – signed into law on June 6, 2014 – which provides that the DOC “Shall not place a person with serious mental illness in long-term isolated confinement except when exigent circumstances are present.”  C.R.S. 17-1-133.8.  What I wanted to know was, who is this man and what drives him?  My colleague Robyn Loup and I had the opportunity to find out when we met with Raemisch and his equally impressive Deputy Executive Director Kellie Wasko this past December.

In my mind, driving Rick Raemisch is a rehabilitative philosophy, grounded in a humanistic conception of man born as a tabula rasa – a blank slate – who is initially neither inherently good nor bad, but rather can proceed down one path or another depending on one’s upbringing, circumstances and environment.  If one’s slate is subject to a certain degree of erasure and revision, it follows that one’s future is capable of being rewritten.  In Raemisch’s words, “Most people can change if given the right tools and encouragement.”  And this is indeed Raemisch’s hope for his charges – he hopes not to see them again, which directly aligns with his mission to have “No More Victims.”  His compassion for his prisoners is impossible to ignore.

In line with this vision of prison as an opportunity for rehabilitation, under Raemisch the Colorado prisons run numerous programs that teach prisoners job skills and prepare them for a productive life on the outside.  In fact, he made re-entry initiatives a top priority in his previous position as the head of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and is now sprearheading new re-entry initiatives in Colorado.  Under Raemisch’s leadership, Director of Clinical Services Renae Jordan is currently implementing several mental health programs that provide services prior to release and connect inmates with treatment on the outside.

Raemisch lights up when he starts listing the various industries run within the prisons by Colorado Correctional Industries.  In total, prisoners milk 850 cows per day; make goat cheese from 1,000 goats; produce mozzarella cheese from 75 water buffalo; break in wild horses; train dogs adopted from shelters to become companions; engage in farming and agriculture, including the maintenance of a vineyard, orchard and bees hives that routinely produce 900 pounds of honey; grow trout and 1.2 million pounds of tilapia sold at places like Whole Foods; raise pheasants and Hungarian gray partridges; and hand-tool saddles and other leather goods. Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way trying to romanticize life behind bars.  Nevertheless, perhaps the existence of such programs makes the inmate experience a bit more bearable.

Next, Kellie Wasko tells us about the mental health treatment facilities available to inmates with a wide spectrum of mental health needs – ranging from serious mental illness to developmental disabilities to acute psychological crises.  It is widely known that jails and prisons are the largest mental health facilities in the nation, with some studies indicating that more than half of jail and prison inmates suffer from a mental health problem.  While jails and prisons are clearly the wrong place to treat anyone with a mental illness in the first place, the fact is that until we enact much-needed reforms, these ill individuals remain inside the prison – and Colorado is doing what it can to provide treatment under the less than ideal circumstances.

The DOC contains three Residential Treatment Programs, two of which encompass entire prisons.  The San Carlos Facility is a male, 253-bed facility providing intensive treatment for inmates with high acuity mental health needs.  Prior to her appointment as Deputy Executive Director, Kellie Wasko served as the Director of Clinical and Correctional Services, in which capacity she established the residential treatment program at Centennial, a male, 240-bed facility for inmates who need more long-term and chronic treatment on an ongoing basis.  Inmates here are offered pet assisted therapy and music programs to encourage participation in treatment.  Centennial is also the place where those offenders are placed whose mental health needs would have resulted in placement in solitary confinement prior to Raemisch’s reforms.  Finally, there is a 48-bed female unit within the Denver Womens Correctional Facility.  Additionally, the DOC runs a number of other specialized primary health treatment units.

What impressed me most about Raemisch was his refusal to sign off on the placement in prison of so-called “too dangerous to manage” individuals with mental health and/or developmental disabilities whom state hospitals had determined they could not handle.  Before Raemisch, such patients – who had never committed a crime – were housed in DOC and generally locked away in solitary confinement for life.  When a pro forma request to “sign on the dotted line” and lock up another such unfortunate came across Raemisch’s desk, he asked “What if I refuse to sign?”  As a result of his refusal, the last of these patients were transferred to the Department of Human Services on October 15, 2014.  (Despite constituting a shocking violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, this provision remains on the books in Colorado.  The elimination of this provision needs to be a top priority for the 2015 legislative session.  We cannot rely on the laudable practice of one director to be followed by his successor.)

And yet despite all of this, Raemisch tells us he is convinced “no one is interested” in his reforms and programs.  I would suggest exactly the opposite is true – evidenced by recent media attention highlighting abominable prison conditions reported by organizations such as The Marshall Project and the American Civil Liberties Union’s goal of halving the US jail and prison population by 2020.  Raemisch is part of a broader national conversation about the role of law enforcement, over-criminalization and America’s dubious distinction as the world’s top jailer, incarcerating an estimated 1,574,700 Americans as of December 31, 2013.  There is no doubt that Raemisch’s example has already played a role in reforms around the nation – New York City recently banned solitary confinement of inmates 21 years old and younger at Riker’s Island.  (Raemisch on Riker’s: “Burn it down.”)  Raemisch is doing his part to lead the path in prison reform and I am confident he will remain a force of positive change and a beacon of hope to those Americans living behind bars as you read these words.


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