Colorado prison wardens can no longer send prisoners with major mental illness to solitary confinement, according to a memo distributed Thursday that solidifies state policy years in the making.
The numbers of mentally ill prisoners locked in cells alone for 23 hours each day has steadily dropped this fall: from 40 in September to fewer than 30 in November and now to just eight. The state wants the number at zero by the end of the year.
The memo from interim director of prisons Lou Archuleta to prison wardens said that "going forward," staff members must not send prisoners with major mental illness to solitary confinement, also called administrative segregation.
"This is an enormous foundational step toward getting seriously mentally ill prisoners out of solitary confinement and into treatment," said Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
The Colorado Department of Corrections opened a residential treatment program for mentally ill prisoners at Centennial Correctional Facility in Cañon City in January, shutting down a prior program that treated mentally ill prisoners while they were held in solitary confinement.
But progress stalled when, two months later, corrections executive director Tom Clements was shot to death on his doorstep. The suspect: a parolee released directly from solitary confinement to the streets who was later killed by Texas deputies.
"We were moving along, and Tom was killed. We were at a standstill," said Kellie Wasko, the department's deputy executive director. After months with an interim executive director, and then the hiring of new director Rick Raemisch, "it was time to pick it back up and move on."