Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado Continues to Warehouse Mentally Ill Prisoners in Solitary

Fifteen years ago, John Quinn* was a bright high school student with a promising future. A talented athlete, he was a star baseball and football player who earned his black belt in karate at age 10.  By all accounts, John was a friendly, intelligent kid who showed no sign of mental illness.

Today, John is rarely coherent and suffers from delusions and auditory hallucinations. He has attempted suicide three times. At least eight psychiatrists have diagnosed John as suffering from serious mental illness with psychotic features, including chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Fifteen years of solitary confinement in the Colorado prison system has completely eradicated the bright young man he had once been.

Imprisoned at age 18, John was almost immediately isolated in “administrative segregation” – Colorado’s term for solitary confinement – for participating in a three-way phone call and tampering with a bathroom lock.  He has never seriously harmed anyone during his many years in prison, yet he has never been able to work his way out of solitary confinement. After the first few years spent in isolation, John’s mental health started to slip away.

As his mental health began to deteriorate, John repeatedly requested to see a psychiatrist. He was rapidly losing his ability to think rationally, yet retained enough sanity to recognize he was in trouble. Not only were his pleas ignored, John was frequently disciplined for asking for mental health treatment. For years, John was left to deal with the voices and delusions on his own.

In late 2012, John was moved to Colorado Department of Correction’s new “Residential Treatment Program,” a program ostensibly designed to provide intensive mental health treatment for selected seriously mentally ill prisoners and avoid placing them in long-term solitary confinement. John’s “intensive” mental health treatment has thus far consisted of an average of 12 minutes of individual therapy and 41 minutes of group therapy each week.  Otherwise, John is alone in his cell most of the time. 

As long as he remains in solitary confinement and is denied meaningful mental health treatment, John will likely never regain his mental health or achieve any significant improvement. He may also continue to deteriorate.  The smart, fully functional young man he had once been is gone forever.

Unfortunately, John’s situation is not unique. According to a new report from the ACLU of Colorado, Colorado currently holds 87 prisoners suffering from serious mental illness in solitary confinement.  The number of prisoners in solitary confinement with moderate mental illness is much higher.  This is despite the fact that a growing majority of the psychiatric community agrees that isolating seriously mentally ill prisoners for any length of time further damages their mental health.  Additionally, courts across the country have been unanimous in finding that such isolation is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  

Tom Clements, the late Colorado Department of Corrections Director, had been an advocate for reducing the use of solitary confinement as a way to deal with mentally ill prisoners. Prior to his death, Mr. Clements had been working with the ACLU of Colorado on devising better ways to treat the mentally ill in the prison system. We hope the incoming director, Rick Raemisch, who began his position last week, will fulfill Mr. Clements’ legacy and end the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Raemisch successfully led the Wisconsin prison system after a federal court ordered all prisoners with serious mental illness be removed from its Supermax Correctional Institution. Unlike Colorado prison officials, he is used to working in a system that does not lock away its mentally ill prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.

Colorado’s practice of warehousing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement has left the state wide open to legal challenge. Raemisch’s actions over the next few months will determine whether the Colorado Department of Corrections becomes a leader or a cautionary tale.

Read the complete report Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado’s Continued Warehousing of Mentally Ill Prisoners in Solitary Confinement here.

Click here for a fact sheet on mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement in Colorado.

Thousands of prisoners in California are on hunger strike to protest being held in solitary confinement for decades. Stand with these courageous men to put an end to this inhumane practice.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

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Since this is of some personal interest as a person with Autism, I'd like to share that I too have been in a prison setting. I had difficulties in dealing with the General Population also, and on a couple of occasions, really several of them in a series of placement in the Texas State System, experienced this. This is not an uncommon thing to see. The upside was after 20-odd years of therapy, a "14-day observation", which actually turned into 35, it was revealed I 'might' have Autism. This was later confirmed by further testing after my release.

The treatment of the SMI (seriously mentally ill) is at best medieval in terms that many SMI people who are serving time in many Jails and Prisons do not get the treatment that could not only help them return to productive and healthy lives on their release, but was perhaps the reason that they are in Prison in the first place. Correctional Officers (aka: CO's) just are not traind and equipped to deal with the mentally ill. Especially the SMI. Usually the only help reserved for these people is either isolation from the General Population, often justified as "for their own protection", or no help at all and these people become even more of a problem and often are beaten by both inmate and CO alike.

I heard somewhere that as many as 70% of the population in our jails and prisons are people with mental health issues. I believe this to be a fact. With the public health system being underfunded, and often some of the first services cut in difficult times, this is not something that surprises me at all. If you add to this the returning Veteran who suffers from PTSD (and there are many in the system) there are many folks who are just overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Since when is it policy to put a "War Hero" in prison? I was exposed to this increasing problem when our troops started to return home from Kuwait and Iraq. The numbers are steadily increasing as the Veteran's Healthcare System is experiencing Federal funding cuts to balance the budget, and private sector non-profit agencies also suffer because donations of time and money are also in the dumps due to the economy.

This has led to a system of "rack 'em, stack 'em and pack 'em" mentality in the prisons that are ill-equipped to handle the SMI, and as a result this ever increasing demographic of mentally ill people are finding themselves in our jails and prisons because there is no other place for them to be. The CO's are not mental health officials, they are guards. They place these men and women in isolation because it is the only thing that they can do for the 'health and welfare' of the SMI population. What really bothers me is that there is an ever increasing number of Veteran's in this group. Is this how America treats those who have put their lives on the line, only to have their own freedoms taken away when they need our help?

This issue is not going to just go away, and with our troops standing down in much of the world due to cutbacks in spending across the board, who can they turn to next when they need assistance? Putting them in jails and prisons, is this what we do to the Veteran's and SMI in the United States? The bottom line is a very hard truth...

Yes - we do.


what john has dono to deserve 15 years imprisonemet?


have a son with bi polar ocd depression and anxiety issues currentlyt in solitary in north carolina, supposed to be out after four months on sept 11th. His lt told him a couple weeks ago, if he behaved he would let him out last thursday. he did not. at sentencing the judges recommendation was mental health treatment. he doesnt get enough when hes not in solitary let alone when he is. he had been making great progress with good therapists on a regular basis before his sentencing. now im afraid, of who he will be when he comes home.

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