Visit to Colorado’s State Penitentiary, the Centennial Prison and the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility December, 2018

by Mary Buser, LCSW and SWASC Co-Founder

Ali Winters, Moya Atkinson, Ric Raemich, Mary Buser, and Victor Pate

In early December of 2018, a group of SWASC and CAIC members from New York  — Mary Buser, Victor Pate, Moya Atkinson and Ali Winters — journeyed to Colorado to observe the publicized reforms to solitary confinement that the state has implemented over the past few years. As guests of Rick Raemisch, the reform-minded Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, the two-day excursion included visits to the Colorado State Penitentiary, the Centennial Prison and the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.

Accompanied by Director Raemisch, along with various wardens and staff, we moved deeply into the prisons, learning that the reforms to solitary began in 2011, ultimately resulting in the statewide release of 1,500 people from isolation cells. In place of solitary, “step-down” units, which allow for a progression of increasing levels of time outside the cell with a four-hour minimum, (to  include socialization and therapy), were successfully implemented.

The “Step-down” units are as follows:

“MCC” – Management Control Comprehensive /Highest level – 4 hours out of cell + rec

“MCU” – Management Control Unit – 4 hours out of cell + rec – socialize w/ 8 others

“CCTU” – Close Custody Transition Unit – 6 hours out of cell + rec – socialize with 16 others

The primary goal is working up through the levels to re-entry into General Population and ultimately a successful re-entry into the community.

We also learned that the transition away from solitary was more complicated than expected — of the 1,500 released, roughly 250— the most severely mentally ill — initially refused to leave their cells, and it was only through therapy dogs that they were eventually coaxed out.

As we walked through various units, we met “Jimmy,” a man who had spent 25 years in solitary. In a quivery voice, he said that four years ago, his cell door was unlocked and the warden stepped in and told him the state was abolishing solitary confinement for humanitarian reasons. After two and a half decades in a cell the size of a parking space, Jimmy was coming out. The warden offered him newly developed interventions to help him cope with any violent impulses. Jimmy said he was confused, but because of the trust now placed in him, he would “do his part.” In the four years since his liberation from solitary, Jimmy proudly stated that he has not been involved in a single violent incident, despite a long history of violence. We learned that Jimmy’s profile is not unusual and that contrary to fears of increased violence without solitary confinement, overall violence has only dropped, with as much as a 46% reduction in assaults on staff.

As the team spoke to individuals and sat in on group meetings in all three institutions, a sense of calm and goodwill pervaded. Low level interventions for stress reduction, such as softly painted de-escalation rooms, peer counseling, and yoga, were abundant, as well as numerous vocational and therapeutic opportunities. At the Centennial Prison, Cognitive and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy are utilized for those suffering from mental illness. At the women’s facility, which resembled more of a college campus than a prison, we chatted with the women, met the canine training team, and visited numerous vocational settings that included the print shop, welding, and cosmetology classes, as well as “apartments” to help women approaching release to prepare for life on the outside.

Surrounded by all of this positivity, we were initially a little skeptical, and Victor Pate quietly pulled aside one of the men in the Colorado Penitentiary, and asked him for the “unvarnished truth.” The man shook his head and told Victor that what he was observing was “the real deal” and that his entire life would have been very different if he had been offered this level of support earlier on in his life.

At all three facilities, we observed correctional staff and the incarcerated interacting in a mutually respectful manner. At the women’s facility, an officer told us that he was initially resistant to all of these changes — not only to solitary, but to the overall shift to a more positive and supportive focus — but that to his surprise, these changes have been his own “rehabilitation” as he is now a part of the greater goal of ensuring that as these people eventually return to society, they are better — not worse — than when they had entered the system.

Prior to our departure, this trip generated a good deal of interest, as well as skepticism — we were repeatedly asked whether or not the reforms in Colorado were real – “Have they really reformed solitary confinement?” We can say that based on our visit, the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Of the four team members who visited, three of us spent significant periods of time either working behind bars, or incarcerated at one point, and we all agreed that the culture in these Colorado prisons is dramatically different from our own experiences. While we are aware of reported problems relating to inadequate mental health care in some of the other Colorado prisons, we can only attest that our observations in these three prisons demonstrated significant and meaningful changes. As Rick Raemisch enters retirement, we applaud him for these bold reforms, and as the newly appointed Executive Director, Dean Williams, takes over, we hope these initiatives will continue, and that they will soon extend to the entire Colorado Prison system. It is also hoped that the reforms in Colorado will become a model for other states like New York of what is possible under courageous and humane leadership

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