Auditor: Colorado prisons have sharply reduced their use of solitary confinement, but there are still some serious issues

A state auditor’s report finds the Colorado isn’t doing enough to keep mentally ill people out of isolation cells, which can further damage their mental health.
4 min. read
Colorado Women’s Prison. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)

Colorado has significantly reduced the practice of putting inmates in solitary confinement, but a state auditor's report finds the state isn't doing enough to keep mentally ill people out of the isolation cells, which can further damage their mental health.

Colorado Women's Prison. (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)

The number of inmates in long-term isolation has dropped from about 1,500 in 2011 to roughly 180 last year, thanks in part to a 2014 law that forbids putting people with major mental health issues in the cells, according to the report from Dianne Ray's office.

Still, the problem has stuck around in a few ways. For example, people with mental illnesses still can be placed in shorter-term "disciplinary segregation." Last December, 45 of the 326 people in that form of isolation had a serious mental illness.

That number actually might be low, as the department has not been testing whether people have mental illnesses before putting them in isolation. Combined with an antiquated database system, that means people who are already unstable can be put in a situation that could make just about anybody go crazy.

The prisons system also has struggled to get isolated prisoners the required number of hours of therapy and out-of-cell time. Almost a third of inmates in isolation didn't get the required 10 therapy hours per week, according to the auditor. That happened in part because the department doesn't have a database that can properly show whether inmates are let out of their cells enough. It's also because inmates refuse out-of-cell therapy hours about 57 percent of the time, often due to fear of social interaction, or the fact that some are tethered for hours during therapy.

Sometimes, people end up in long-term isolation even after the prison system knows they are seriously ill. That happened to three people over about a half-year, in two cases due to the general shoddiness of the inmate database.

Six more inmates were not removed from isolation within 30 days, even after staff discovered that they had a mental illness. Thirty-six were held in "disciplinary segregation" for longer than two months -- 236 days for one inmate -- against prison policy. In some cases, people were stuck in isolation while prisons staff looked for somewhere else to put them. In others, inmates refused to leave the units.

Part of the problem here is that the state's database of inmates is kind of crappy. For example, it cannot easily show when someone has multiple diagnoses of mental illnesses, and generally isn't very flexible, probably because it's more than 20 years old. These kinds of gaps can result in people getting the wrong treatment, or no treatment.

A new system is on the way, but it could take four years more to install, and the department hasn't otherwise tried to solve these database problems in the meantime, the report states.

Prisons management also has agreed to do more timely evaluations of inmates, and more of them, among other changes.

The report also looked at the sex-offender treatment program in the prisons.

Auditors found that the prisons system hasn't developed a good way to prioritize which sex offenders get treatment first, which has resulted in hundreds of people staying in prison past their minimum sentence or parole date.

Furthermore, the state apparently lacks any measures or goals to measure how effective the mental health and sex-offender programs are in treating inmates.

"This hinders the Department in achieving its overall mission, and in demonstrating that the $20 million the Department spends annually on its Mental Health and Sex Offender Programs is being used as effectively as possible," the report states. The department argues the rates of assaults, crises and other measures do show how the programs are working.

The auditors also found that prisons staff often were slow or failed altogether to create treatment plans for inmates with mental illnesses. The department "may not be ensuring that it provides offenders with the right tools to help them cope with their specific problem areas," the report states.

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