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The Rise and Fall of Colorado’s Supermax - Part 3
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 12/18/2017

Prison cell w The following is the conclusion of a three part series.

Colorado is not alone in their treatment of mentally ill individuals. The sad fact of the matter is that the biggest mental health facilities in this country are jails (Slate, 2008). When this country deinstitutionalized the mental health system in the late 50’s and then failed to adequately fund community systems, large numbers of mentally ill people ended up in prison. This was a foreseeable outcome of the political actions taken with regard to mental health care. The only surprising thing about this chain of events is that some have the nerve to act surprised by the outcome.

The need for increased mental health treatment in the supermax environment was not widely supported, even by mental health clinicians assigned to the supermax prison. This reluctance to support increased treatment was explained by Haney (2008) who detailed the effect of the supermax prison upon all staff, even the noncustodial staff, stating: “they are not immune to the ecology of cruelty that exists in many of the units (and they are powerless to change it)”(p. 973). Mental health clinicians who worked in these supermax prisons were used to conducting therapy in open areas, behind protective shields or at the door front while talking to their “client” through a tray-slot opening. Not only did these clinicians get used to the rules and procedures, they were part of the resistance to changing the process to a less controlled environment. Part of this reluctance stems from the perception that some inmate behavior is not a product of their illness, but is within their control.

A significant cultural expectation that developed at CSP and CSP II between mental health clinicians and custody staff was the need to determine if an inmate’s action was solely because he was mentally ill or was it “behavioral.” If the action was determined to be behavioral that would mean that the action was not a direct result of their mental illness and they could choose to behave differently. This distinction was a major part of policy regarding the actions of the inmates who displayed bizarre actions such as spreading his own feces across windows or walls, or even eating his own feces. A common response by people who do not work in these settings, even by correctional employees in other facilities where this type of behavior rarely occurs, is that anyone who would behave like this must be mentally ill. However, in Colorado’s supermax prisons, this behavior is evaluated by mental health clinicians to determine if the inmate had the ability to behave differently and if so, should be punished for this behavior. As the behaviors continue to escalate, mental health clinicians worked side-by-side with custody staff to craft observation strategies and ever increasingly complex restraint strategies to deal with this type of behavior.

The courts have also been a part of the attack upon Colorado’s supermax policy. In August 2012, Judge R. Brooke Jackson found that the conditions of confinement, that included lack of outdoor recreation, were “sufficiently extreme to create a liberty interest worthy of constitutional protection” (Judge R. Brooke Jackson, 2012). The fact that CSP II was built in the same style, with no outdoor recreation options did not sit favorably with the judge. The judge noted the Colorado system must not be concerned by the lack of an outdoor recreation area because they had just opened a second supermax facility designed in a similar manner. This ruling was another blow to the facility employees who thought their actions and their facility would be found to managing these inmates correctly.

In 2011, a new governor appointed a new executive director who was charged with “fixing” the Colorado system’s supermax problem. These orders were clearly communicated throughout the ranks of the entire department. It was difficult for the supermax employees to hear, so publically, that they were no longer the flagship, but instead they were the problem that had to be fixed.

It wasn’t long before the movement to reduce the ad seg population, at all costs, was underway. Deputy directors and wardens from other prisons were ordered to review inmates held in supermax to determine if they were good candidates to be progressed to a lower custody facility. No supermax employee was allowed to conduct these reviews although they were needed to provide security, escorts, answer questions, and help with file management. The exclusion of the people that worked on a daily basis with the inmates was yet another communication that they were not valued as anyone that could be part of the solution because they were somehow tainted.

At the end of the review process, 473 inmates were identified to be moved to a lower custody facility, and then nothing happened. Nothing else happened for months, except to report to the media that 473 inmates were identified for movement (American Correctional Association, 2012). The facility warden asked headquarters staff at least weekly about the time frame to move the inmates and nothing happened. Other facility wardens asked headquarters staff about the time table for when they would receive these highly dangerous inmates and nothing happened. Many employees began to believe that the move would not really happen, until over 400 of these inmates were moved into other facilities in just a few days. The jolt to the entire system was felt by this radical and poorly planned move. Suddenly medium security yards were filled with predatory and dangerous inmates. The number of staff voicing concerns about safety for themselves and inmates increased. The ripple effect of this mass move was felt at every facility. The system that had been known for stability and safety was now the epitome of instability.

One of the ripple effects of this move was the announcement of the closure of the CSP II facility which had only been partially open for just 19 months. This closure was explained by the reduced need for supermax beds as a result of the 400 inmates who had been progressed out of the system. The 200 million dollar CSP II no longer held any inmates.

Over the next months, staff reported that violence was increasing within their facilities only to be told that the numbers of violent incidents had actually decreased. The data released to the media told a story of a system that had successfully and miraculously moved through this massive transition. The staff who disagreed were silenced by the data, even though the data didn’t reflect the reality of what they experienced. Then in the fall of 2012, a correctional food service officer was murdered and another was seriously injured in a medium security facility. This horrendous act of violence was something that could not be described in a manner that supported the idea that the facilities were safe and stable.

Then another horrendous act occurred, the Executive Director was murdered in his home. The alleged assailant was a parolee that had recently been released directly from supermax to the community. The effect that these two murders had upon an unstable system cannot be overstated. The Colorado system was a system stunned into inaction for several months. When a new executive director was named there was some hope that attention to the need to increase stability would be a high priority.

It did not take long before it was obvious that the new executive director was not focused on the stability of the system, but instead his focus was on continuing the work to eliminate or reduce supermax confinement in Colorado. This fact was confirmed when the New York Times published a letter written by this director after he “secretly” spent 20 hours as an inmate, inside a cell at CSP. The letter, by Rick Raemisch, was published on Feb 20, 2014 in an op-ed section of the New York Times. Raemisch wrote that in the short period of time he spent in solitary confinement that he was “left feeling twitchy and paranoid.” The director further revealed that he believed that solitary confinement damages mental health by stating: “as I sat with my mind. How long would it take before ad seg chipped that away? I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose.” A follow up article covered the attention from the media about the director’s stay in administrative segregation was published in the New York Times on March 15, 2014, written by Erica Goode. This article built upon the relationship between mental health and administrative segregation and quoted Raemisch: “If it [my stay in solitary] would have been maybe even two days or a week, I would think: ‘yeah, that would probably get someone’s attention.’ I might walk out stark raving mad, but it would get somebody’s attention.”

The future of the use of supermax confinement in Colorado was clear. In the op-ed letter published by Mr. Raemish he concluded: “If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.”

Releasing inmates into an environment that provides more freedom of movement is not as simple as just writing a memo or giving an interview to the media. The adjustment needed for the inmates as they are moved into an environment that often included a cellmate and congregate activities is significant. The same type of adjustment is needed for the employees. Correctional employees believed their leaders when they were told that supermax confinement increased their safety and safety of the system. So what type of message was being sent to these employees who were now expected to interact in dayhalls and recreation yards with several of these highly dangerous inmates? These same inmates were required to be handcuffed and escorted with two employees anytime they were out of their cell, just the week before.

Another clear message for the formerly elite staff that worked inside CSP, was communicated by the Director in his letter from inside CSP when he wrote about the effect of solitary confinement upon Evan Ebel, the parolee who is suspected of killing the former director: “whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better.” The blame in that statement falls squarely upon the employees who implemented the policies and procedures to manage the 23 hour lockdown facility.

In another follow-up op-ed in The New York Times on October 12, 2017, the same director declared success in virtually eliminating solitary confinement in Colorado. He declared that only 18 inmates in Colorado were being held in solitary confinement. He continued to expound on this successful transition for the state as he wrote: “Not everyone agreed with my new policy. But the corrections officers who had initially opposed it changed their minds after they began to see positive results. I’ve seen and been told that the corrections officers are interacting with the inmates in a more positive manner.” The message, again, by his writing is that the problem was the staff --as if the staff only needed to interact with inmates in a more positive manner and the inmates would have behaved better.

Placing blame on the staff is at the heart of the fall of supermax prisons. If we describe the supermax employees across the country as brutal or even venal individuals that are content to exact punishment and torture upon the inmates housed in supermax facilities- then we can distance ourselves from the responsibility of creating these facilities. The individuals who approved the design of these prisons and those who funded these prisons are rarely held to account. Instead the focus has been upon the individuals who work within these facilities. The reality is that these individuals answered a call to civil service to fulfill the requirements of the job asked of them. These individual corrections professionals worked diligently to implement policy, often a policy for which they were not a part of the formulation and may not even support.

So what is the future for managing the most dangerous and disruptive convicted criminals? Will this nation continue on the path of eliminating the use of supermax prisons or will the tide turn to where we are re-inventing the next phase of control? Will the safety of our corrections employees be reason enough to revert to increased use of segregation strategies? The recent tragic deaths and assaults of corrections employees in this country have already begun to spur such conversations.

As the pendulum swings back….

An earlier version of this article was published in January 2016 in The International Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology Newsletter. It has been reprinted with permission.

American Correctional Association. (2012). Administrative Segregation Review Congress of Corrections Workshops. Denver,CO
Austin, J., & Sparkman, E. (2011). Colorado Department of Corrections Adminsitrative Segregation and Classification Review, Technical Assistance # 11P1022: National Institute of Corrections.
Colorado Department of Corrections. (2008). Statistical Report
Haney, C. (2008). A culture of harm: Taming the dynamics of cruelty in supermax prisons. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(8), 956-984.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson. (2012). Final order and judgment, U.S. District Courts for the District of Colorado.
Long Bill FY 11-12, Colorado, Officer of the Stat Controller (2011-2012).
Mears, D. P. (2008). "An assessment of supermax prisons using an evaluation research framework." The Prison Journal 88(1): 43-68.
Slate, R. N. a. J. W. W. (2008). Criminalization of mental illness. Durhan, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Ward, D. A., & Werlich, T. G. (2003). Alcatraz and marion. Punishment & Society, 5(1), 53-75. doi: 10.1177/1462474503005001295

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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