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Victory in Colorado: Closing Solitary Confinement Unit Good for Budget and Public Safety

A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
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March 21, 2012

By Denise Maes, ACLU of Colorado

The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) has announced that effective February 2013 it will close a wing of its Centennial Correctional Facility (known as “CSP II”) that currently houses 316 high security/solitary confinement beds. This move will save Colorado taxpayers $4.5 million in fiscal year 2012-2013 and $13.6 million in fiscal year 2013-2014. This savings comes at the right time for Colorado.

CDOC’s announcement is earth-shaking news and should be applauded. When CSP II’s opening was announced in 2010, there were already 750 inmates in solitary confinement. The state budget was in a crisis, and yet the state managed to find almost $10 million to add another 316 solitary confinement beds in CSP II’s south wing.

For many years now, the ACLU and other coalition partners have argued that solitary confinement is fundamentally inhumane, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and that corrections officials should focus on more successful and cost-effective alternatives. We know that solitary confinement units and the prisons that house them cost as much as four times more to maintain and operate than typical prison facilities. Moreover, over use of solitary confinement has a detrimental effect on inmates’ psyches and is likely to make them more aggressive, uncontrollable and, upon release from prison, more likely to reoffend and be reincarcerated.

Finally, the practice is inhumane: solitary confinement places an individual in a prison cell 22 to 24 hours a day, with no natural light or human contact and for an indefinite length of time.

With these facts, ACLU-Colorado’s main legislative campaign in 2011 was to radically limit solitary confinement in CDOC by restricting the use of solitary confinement for inmates with severe mental health issues, creating a transition process for inmates leaving solitary confinement before community re-entry, and funding DOC mental health program alternatives. With a broad-based coalition and with the assistance of aggressive state legislative bill sponsors, we pushed legislation that would accomplish these goals.

Although ultimately our bill did not pass the legislature, the great momentum we initiated against solitary confinement resulted in a good compromise. The legislature passed a bill that ensured a funding mechanism to support mental health alternatives to solitary confinement and the DOC committed to undertake an audit of its practices regarding solitary confinement. The result has been a radical reduction in the solitary confinement population. Indeed, in just a three-month period, more than 300 inmates have been removed from solitary confinement and into the general prison population without an increase in violence or other disruptions.

CDOC claims that the closure of the south wing of CSP II is due to decreasing prison population. That may be true, but undoubtedly CDOC learned through its audit (conducted by an outside third-party source) that, like many states, Colorado was overusing solitary confinement. Solitary confinement should be used rarely and only for those inmates who cannot be managed safely in general population because they are an ongoing threat to staff or other prisoners. Many prisons, however, utilize solitary confinement as punishment for an inmates’ violation of routine rules and regulations. Moreover, considering the economy and the fact that most prisoners in solitary confinement are eventually released into our communities, CDOC hopefully has made the conscious choice to use taxpayer dollars on initiatives that assist with re-entry into our communities and to cease the wasteful and shameful practice of solitary confinement and limit its use to only the most appropriate situations.

The United States is number one in the world when it comes to the most inmates held in solitary confinement. Colorado’s use of solitary confinement is two-to-three times higher than any other state in the nation. These are not proud facts. CDOC’s announcement is, however. It should be applauded.

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