Colorado’s $18.2 billion budget, which state lawmakers passed this week after contentious debate, makes substantial cuts to public education, colleges and universities, and tax breaks for small businesses and senior citizens. In the face of shrunken revenues (and dwindling federal stimulus funds), Colorado even reduced its overall corrections budget. But in the midst of all these deep cuts to vital services, the Colorado legislature managed to find $9.37 million to open one wing of a new supermax prison, containing 316 additional “administrative segregation” cells where prisoners will live in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.
Colorado already has more than 1,100 solitary confinement beds throughout the prison system, according to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC). As a percentage of total prison beds, this is more than three times the national average. The state’s existing supermax facility, the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP-I), is less than 20 years old and holds more than 750 prisoners in solitary confinement. Yet in 2003, the state initiated construction of a second supermax, CSP-II, at the cost of $208 million.
CSP-II was delayed by a lawsuit, and by the time it was completed last year, Colorado governor Bill Ritter put its opening on hold because of budget shortfalls. But Ritter changed his mind, and despite resistance from a coalition of state civil liberties, human rights, and criminal justice reform groups, lawmakers voted through the funds to open one tower of CSP-II.
At the same time, Colorado has cut funds for inmate vocational training, re-entry programs, and mental health care–despite the fact that close to 40 percent of the prisoners in administrative segregation are believed to suffer from mental illness. Corrections department officials and others who support the opening of CSP-II say it is needed to protect guards and inmates alike from violent and unruly prisoners. But statistics do not support the contention that greater use of solitary confinement reduces risk. As CCJRC argues, “Colorado can not ‘segregate’ its way to safety.”
In a strange confluence of events, the vote came just days before Sunday night’s airing of “Explorer: Solitary Confinement,” an episode of the popular National Geographic documentary series that focuses on prisoners in solitary at CSP-I. While it takes pains to present a “balanced” view, the show manages to convey something of the cruelty of Colorado’s liberal use of administrative segregation. On Sunday, Denver Post columnist Susan Greene wrote about the documentary:
“Solitary Confinement”…follows inmates through the 23 hours they spend each day locked down in cells, their food pushed through slots in their door. The 24th hour is for exercise, also alone.
The film debunks conceptions that these guys are all Hannibal Lecters. One is doing time for identity theft. Another stole a car. The average stint in isolation–or “ad-seg,” short for administrative segregation, as officials call it–is two years. Prisoners end up there not because of the crimes they committed, but for violations that corrections officials say threaten their administrative efficiency. It’s an attempt to modify behavior….
Colorado has no limit on how long the system can keep inmates in conditions that many experts call torturous. “When you move into a cell, you look on the floor and you’ll see where cement wore out from the last person who did the same thing you’ll be doing–walking from the bunk to the door, bunk to the door. Turn. Turn. Turn. . . . It does seem to break something inside you,” says Josue Gonzales, who has spent seven of his 29 years alone in CSP-I.
Greene quotes Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research on solitary confinement, and is featured in the National Geographic documentary. “It’s virtually guaranteed to make people worse,” Grassian says. “Ninety-five percent of these people will get out and be released back on the streets. All isolation will have done is make them as violent, crazy and dangerous as possible when they get out,” he continues. “This isn’t getting tough on crime. It’s getting tough on the community.”