By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
DENVER — Although the state hasn’t had long-term solitary confinement in its prisons since 2017, hundreds of people in county jails across Colorado spend 22 hours a day or more sitting alone in a small cell. Some stay in solitary confinement for days, others for weeks.
A bill in the state legislature, HB21-1211, would greatly restrict when deputies in Colorado’s largest jails can place a person in solitary confinement, defined as keeping someone alone in a cell for more than 22 hours a day. The sponsor and proponents of the bill said extended solitary confinement damages people’s mental health and destabilizes them, instead of providing rehabilitation.
“It’s a moral issue for our society,” Boulder Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile said. “We know about the damage that it does, and now we all have to put our shoulder to the wheel and fix it.”
The bill does not apply to all jail inmates and instead focuses only on juveniles, pregnant women, people with physical disabilities and those with serious mental health diagnoses or symptoms. The restrictions also would only be for jails with more than 400 beds, said Amabile, who is sponsoring the bill.
The county sheriffs oppose the bill, saying it does not address their need to separate dangerous inmates from others or give them money to implement the required changes. Sheriffs said they respected the intent of the bill but the specifics would be difficult to put into practice.
“This is too much too soon without any structure and without any funding to implement,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Tuesday at House Judiciary Committee hearing. The bill was moved to the full House with an 7-4 vote.
Solitary confinement is used as punishment, to keep an inmate from hurting others or to protect an inmate from being hurt by others, Pelle said.
There is no statewide standard policy for using solitary confinement in jails, Pelle said, though sheriffs are interested in creating one.
Among other changes, the bill would require sheriff’s offices to:
— Notify medical or mental health professionals within an hour of placing a person in solitary.
— Check on an inmate in solitary confinement in person every 15 minutes and send a medical or mental health professional to assess them every 24 hours.
— Seek a court order if they want to hold a person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days in a 30-day period.
— Collect and report data to the Colorado Department of Public Safety about solitary confinement.
In Boulder County, about 10% of the jail’s approximately 300 inmates are in “restrictive housing” (law enforcement’s term for solitary confinement) on any given day, Pelle said. Those inmates are in their cell alone for 22.5 hours a day and during the 1.5 hours out of the cell, the inmate does not socialize with others but is allowed to shower, walk around and make phone calls, Pelle said.
Other jail employees testified at the hearing that they also had dozens of inmates in solitary confinement. Spending day after day isolated in a small space can be disorienting, painful and can worsen a person’s mental health, Amabile said.
“Some would say that it’s tantamount to torture for certain groups,” Amabile said.
Ryan Partridge, who gouged out his eyes while in solitary confinement in the Boulder County jail, testified in support of the bill, saying it provided dignity and protections for vulnerable people. He spent 55 of his 200 days at the jail in solitary confinement, he said.
The Colorado Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prisons, banned the use of long-term solitary confinement in 2017. The department’s director at the time, Rick Raemisch, noted that the United Nations considered prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement to be torture.
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