My Night in Solitary Confinement

My Night in Solitary Confinement

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

It’s a typical dreary January winter morning at a Colorado state penitentiary.  Sounds of shackled feet are heard shuffling down a long dark hallway that leads to solitary confinement, also known as Ad Seg. The only background noise is the chilling sound of howling disgruntled inmates. His arms handcuffed and his legs shackled, Rick makes his way to solitary confinement, a place where time stands still and the mentally sane can be driven into the world of insanity.  

A mesh bag filled with toiletries is the only item the correctional officer brings to cell No. 22 where Rick will be confined for the next 20 hours. Toiletries are the only items permitted in the 7 by 13 ft. tiny cell, scantily furnished by a small cot, sink, and toilet, all made of cold steel and fastened to the floor.

Rick will have to survive in his cell without any type of entertainment, including books, magazines, or television. In “Removed From Population” (R.F.P.) inmates are not allowed these items. However, in regular Ad. Seg. inmates can pass the time watching T.V. and reading books.

After a lingering stroll to the cell where Rick will spend time in solitary confinement, correctional officers remove his shackles and slam the heavy steel door behind him. Rick experiences one moment of silence before his feed tray door is banged open, and he is ordered to place his hands through the narrow opening, and his handcuffs are abruptly removed. The reality of being in solitary confinement settles into Rick’s mind.

Rick hasn’t even been charged with a crime. But, he will only spend 20 hours locked in the dismal cell located on the second floor, and he requested his extended visit to the Colorado penitentiary.

Rick Raemisch is the replacement for murdered Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements.

Raemisch is being charged with accomplishing three goals by Governor John Hickenlooper;  limiting or eliminating the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates; addressing the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods; and reducing the number of offenders released directly from solitary back into their communities.

Raemish has the wisdom to know that if he is to effectively achieve those goals, he will need to personally experience the horrors of what it is like to be confined in solitary confinement and the effects it has on prisoners. Mr.Raemish picked the week of January 23 to clear his busy schedule for conducting his experiment because it was the week the state of New York agreed to a set of reforms intended to restrain the widespread use of solitary confinement, including prohibiting its use in disciplining prisoners under 18.  

After almost a year since the death of Tom Clements, the time has come for Colorado to step into action.

Mr. Clements had begun his mission as the Director of Colorado Department of Corrections to lead the way for solitary confinement reform when he was interrupted by being shot point blank on his own doorstep by an inmate freshly released from solitary confinement. For more detailed information on this case refer to our article on the pitfalls of electronic monitoring.

Mr. Raemish’s report on being in solitary confinement was anything but pleasant. The most significant impact his experience had on him was how noisy it was. Raemish reports that there was never a break-in blaring T.V.s, yelling among other inmates, and general noise that never ends. The lights were never shut off, which Raemish noticed made it difficult to sleep and distinguish between night and day. The only solace Raemish could find was to count the miniature holes on the wall that former inmates had chiseled away to fill the empty hours of endless time.

Eventually, Raemish was able to catch a little shut eye between toilets flushing, officers jerking on cell doors to check security, and intermittent orders over the loudspeaker for inmates to get up and stand in front of their only visible window for a foot count. As executive director of the Department of Corrections, Raemish was impressed by the diligent work of his employees, but at the same time, he could feel the irritation inmates must experience when they are deprived of sleep and a chance to rest their minds. He found out later that inmates cope with the chaos by using toilet paper to assemble earplugs. 

At 6:15 breakfast arrived through the tiny tray door. After breakfast it didn’t take him long to perform his daily grooming tasks of brushing his teeth and washing his face. He made his bed and did two sets of push-ups. From what Raemish could see out of his modest window, the sun hadn’t even come up, and he was already wondering how he was going to pass the time.

On average, inmates who are sent to Ad. Seg. in Colorado spend 23 months there. Some spend 20 years. Raemish’s meager 20-hour stay was a blink of an eye compared to a normal sentence in solitary confinement.

Even for a sound minded person like Raemish, knowing his stint in the can was going to end late the next afternoon it was a daunting task to take on.

Raemish had a difficult time making it until 3:00pm when he was scheduled to be released. He finally broke down and asked an officer what time it was and it was only 11:15am.  He could not fathom how an inmate survives for months or even years locked up with nothing to do, but sit with your mind. 

Sadly, it is a harsh reality that every prison in America has become a dumping ground for the mentally ill and the marginalized of society that no one knows how to deal with. These unwanted souls are thrown away into the dark world of Ad. Seg. The worst place on earth for unsound minds, let alone well-adjusted and highly respected professionals like the head administrator of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Rich Raemish, the remarkable man who is willing to move forward where Tom Clements involuntarily left off, perfectly illustrates that the Colorado Department of Corrections is committed to change. “If an inmate acts up, we slam a steel door on him. Ad Seg allows a prison to run more efficiently for a period of time, but by placing a difficult offender in isolation, you have not solved the problem — only delayed or, more likely, exacerbated it, not only for the prison but ultimately for the public. Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in.”

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on confinement, described in a paper published last year the many psychological effects of solitary. Inmates reported nightmares, heart palpitations and “fear of impending nervous breakdowns.” He pointed to research from the 1980s that found that a third of those studied had experienced “paranoia, aggressive fantasies, and impulse control problems … In almost all instances, the prisoners had not previously experienced any of these psychiatric reactions.”

Correctional officers in America are not trained to address serious mental disorders.

Raemish agrees that most of the inmates housed in Ad. Seg. have committed serious crimes, but he also believes that it doesn’t justify the inhumane use of solitary confinement. The new director is in line with his predecessor, Tom Clements, whom he regards as a courageous reformer.

Mr. Clements had already made his mark on reducing the misuse of solitary confinement in Colorado when his life was taken away by a parolee who was accidentally released early after spending a significant amount of his adult life in solitary confinement.

In little more than two years, Clements and his staff lowered the number of inmates spending time in solitary confinement by more than half: from 1,505 inmates (among the highest rates in the country) to 726. As of January 2013, just a few months before his death, the number was down to 593. Clements had also decreased the number of severely mentally ill inmates in Ad Seg down to the single digits.

After Raemish was released from his mock solitary confinement sentence, he was convinced that the punitive discipline practice is still in need of urgent reform. Raemish firmly believes if it is not possible to completely remove Ad. Seg. from the correctional system, at least we can attempt to greatly reduce its use. Since 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, it is only just to at least provide treatment for solitary confinement veterans before releasing them back into mainstream society.