Over more than four decades in criminal justice, Rick Raemisch has worn many hats, including deputy sheriff, prosecutor, elected sheriff and secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. But in each post, he has remained committed to one overriding principle: reducing the number of people in prison. When the political leadership of Wisconsin declined to endorse his plan to shrink the number of state prisons to match the state’s declining inmate population, Raemisch decided to look elsewhere for a new challenge that would put his political and personal beliefs to the test.
What he found turned out to be the most difficult challenge of his career. In 2013, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, was shot dead on his doorstep by a former prison inmate. Like Raemisch, Clements had been committed to reducing the state’s inmate population and phasing out the use of solitary confinement. Succeeding him was not only a difficult job -- it was also a potentially dangerous one. Clements’ killer had been released from prison after spending a long period in solitary confinement that appeared to have contributed to a desire for revenge. There were fears that others might be tempted into a similar offense.
Still, when Gov. John Hickenlooper called on Raemisch to come to Colorado and continue the work begun by Clements, Raemisch agreed. But he vowed to take the reform efforts a step further. If the state was going to grapple with the use of solitary confinement, Raemisch felt he needed to know what conditions in solitary actually looked like.
In 2014, he decided to spend a day in solitary, against the wishes of his staff. Clements was killed at his home, aides told him; how could the state keep Raemisch safe inside a prison? But he insisted, and his visit to solitary was documented by news outlets across the country. Raemisch emerged from the experience pushing for the most aggressive solitary confinement cutback in the nation. He wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the overuse of solitary confinement “has not solved any problems; at best it has maintained them.”
Four years later, Colorado limits the use of solitary confinement in prisons to 15 days, borrowing protocols set by the United Nations. The state bans solitary confinement in the two Colorado prison facilities dedicated to treating mentally ill inmates. Rather than spending time in solitary cells, these inmates have access to de-escalation rooms where they are not confined and can sort out their issues with the assistance of staff. The de-escalation rooms have been so successful in those two facilities that Colorado is rolling them out across its entire prison system in the coming months.
All of this harkens back to Raemisch’s early days as a deputy sheriff in Dane County, Wis., when he took on some of the toughest assignments in the department, spending significant time working undercover narcotics. He concluded that simply arresting drug dealers would never be enough, and that arrests and imprisonment alone would never make any progress against the drug problem. Decades ago, the 65-year-old Raemisch says, “I knew we needed to get out of this cycle of mass incarceration. Prison should truly be reserved for violent offenders only.”
—J. Brian Charles