DENVER (AP) – The percentage of Colorado inmates with mental health problems who were placed in solitary confinement more than doubled between 1999 and 2008, and many were released from prison without having a chance to readjust to human interaction.
Those findings from a 2008 Department of Corrections report have inspired two Colorado Democrats to pitch legislation aimed at limiting the number of mentally ill inmates who can be put in solitary confinement.
Senate Bill 176, which gets its first hearing Monday, would require state prisons to have a physician evaluate inmates with such illnesses as bipolar mood disorders or paranoid schizophrenia before they’re placed in solitary confinement.
It also would limit solitary confinement stays to no more than 30 consecutive days and require that inmates get a chance to integrate with the general prison population before being released from prison.
Currently, the average stay in solitary confinement is 18 months, according to the DOC.
“It is a human rights issue,” said Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora, who is sponsoring the bill.
In a statement, the DOC said it opposes the bill because it says there is no indication officials are abusing the use of solitary confinement. The department said the bill “places other considerations above the core mission of public safety.”
“Many offenders in CDOC Administrative Segregation were placed there for violence or sexual assaults perpetrated against their fellow offenders, yet the bill places little regard on the safety of these offenders’ victims,” the department said.
“Their statement simply defends an indefensible status quo, which is quite damning even based on their own statistics,” Carroll responded.
Carroll said she became interested in the issue after watching documentaries that showed inmates in solitary confinement can become more psychologically unstable and can be released in a worsened state that makes them more likely to reoffend.
What compelled the legislation was the case of a woman who wrote about her experiences in a Denver prison, Carroll said.
Anne Lawlor, 42, said she spent a year in solitary confinement in 2005 while serving a 5-year sentence at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for writing bad checks. Lawlor said she was placed there because prison officials accused her of speaking in “coded language” with her husband.
“I nearly lost my mind,” said Lawlor, who now works as a project manager at Denver Solar and Wind. “I was unable to tolerate noise, bright lights or human contact when I was released from the unit. I would shiver and panic.”
The DOC confirmed Lawlor spent a year in solitary confinement but could not say why.
The department’s 2008 report, cited in Carroll’s bill, found that 37 percent of inmates in solitary confinement had developmental disabilities or mental health issues. In 1999, that percentage was 15 percent.
The report said nearly 41 percent of all inmates in solitary confinement were released from prison without an opportunity to readjust to human interaction. Two-thirds of those released returned to prison within three years, the report.
“You don’t make them better, you make them worse,” said Rep. Claire Levy, a Boulder Democrat who will sponsor the bill in the House if it gets there.
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project, said it’s not unusual for inmates to spend years in solitary confinement. While some are extremely dangerous, Fathi said a large number are mentally ill inmates who repeatedly failed to follow prison rules.
New York and Vermont have enacted laws that seek to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, Fathi said. Illinois and Maine proposed similar legislation but their attempts failed, he said. New Mexico lawmakers recently introduced a bill requiring study of solitary confinement.
Carroll claims bipartisan support for her proposal. She said she understands the DOC wants to have flexibility in managing prison populations and that some inmates do belong in solitary confinement.
“We just need to make sure we have the right process to sort out those that do belong there and those that don’t,” she said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)