DENVER (AP) - Colorado prison officials are being directed to stop placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement as the corrections department seeks to decrease the number of people it keeps in administrative segregation.
In a memo to wardens, interim Director of Prisons Lou Archuleta tells them that inmates with major mental illnesses "cannot be referred for Administrative Segregation placement." The memo is dated Tuesday.
Instead of solitary confinement, offenders with a major mental illness are to be referred to a 240-bed residential treatment program inside Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City, the memo states.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado on Thursday praised the direction from the Department of Corrections, but says DOC should broaden its definition for who is considered mentally ill.
Rebecca Wallace, an ACLU attorney, said the "definition of major mental illness is too narrow" and won't include some inmates with disorders that physiatrists and courts have deemed should not be placed in prolonged solitary confinement.
The ACLU obtained the memo from the DOC.
The mental health consequences of solitary confinement have received more attention since the slaying of former Colorado DOC Director Tom Clements in March. The suspect, Evan Ebel, was a former inmate who had been released after serving eight years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Ebel was later killed in a shootout with Texas authorities.
Clements is credited with working on policies to reduce the solitary confinement population.
"I think there is a change happening, and that change started to come to Colorado with Mr. Clements and I think it's at our doorstep now with Mr. Raemisch," Wallace said.
During a hearing Wednesday, DOC Executive Director Rick Raemisch (RAY'-mish) gave state lawmakers a glimpse of what has been an evolving policy at his department. He said there are only eight inmates in solitary confinement with a major mental illness now, compared to 140 last year.
Raemisch told lawmakers that overall, there were 662 inmates in solitary confinement in September, compared to 1,505 in September 2011. It's a number he said he wants to continue reducing.
"I think this department will admit, and has admitted like many states, that administrative segregation has been overused here," he told lawmakers.
Wallace said the ACLU would like to see other changes, including increasing the number of mental health staff at state prison facilities, and making sure that the seriously mentally ill in solitary confinement have 20 hours of out-of-cell time each week.
Corrections officials told lawmakers during the hearing Wednesday that they're planning a major rewrite of department policies regarding solitary confinement. They expect the rewrite to be completed by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Raemisch, who was hired in June to replace Clements, said that as he tries to change his department's philosophy on solitary confinement, he asks his staff and correctional officers: "How many of you would like to live next to a person that has spent many years in administrative segregation and is now released into the community?"
- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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