Despite a lack of evidence pointing to its benefits, restrictive housing continues to be used in every state in America. Inmates are held in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for decades. Some are mentally ill, yet we place them in isolation, letting their demons chase them around their cells.
When Governor John Hickenlooper appointed me to head the Colorado Department of Corrections in 2013, the state had begun to implement reforms to reduce restrictive housing. My predecessor, Tom Clements, initiated this work before he was murdered at his home by a former inmate in 2013. When I took office later that year, we still had 750 inmates in restrictive housing, and about half were being released directly into the community. Imagine: Two heavily protected correctional officers would remove the inmate from the cell in full chains and shackles. They would take him onto a public bus, remove the chains and shackles, provide bus fare, and let him go.
Reducing restrictive housing was my top priority when I took office. Within a year we had stopped releasing inmates from restrictive housing directly into the community, instead introducing a tiered reintegration with programs and services. I also worked with my staff, the governor’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union, and state legislators to pass organizational policies — and then state laws — that prevented the seriously mentally ill from being placed in restrictive housing. We introduced desegregation rooms into one of our facilities for the seriously mentally ill, a very inexpensive intervention that involves designating unlocked rooms where an inmate can spend time alone to decompress. The rooms are open 24 hours a day and have soft colors, comfortable chairs, soothing music, de-stress materials, and a blackboard. We have seen success as these desegregation rooms reduce restrictive housing of the mentally ill without significant increases in violence.
We’ve also made important progress in reducing long-term restrictive housing. Six years ago, there was no limit on the amount of time an individual could be placed in restrictive housing in Colorado. We quickly established a one-year maximum. Punitive segregation had a 90-day maximum in 2013, which we reduced to 60 days, then 30 days, and then 15 days. Today, Colorado is the only state with a 15-day limit on the time an inmate can spend in restrictive housing.
When we did away with long-term restrictive housing, more than 200 inmates refused to leave their cells. We didn’t want to physically force people out of restrictive housing when we had forced them there in the first place, so we used at-the-door therapy, incentives, and therapy dogs to try to draw them out. I talked with one individual who had been in restrictive housing for 15 years for verbally threatening to assault a corrections officer. He initially refused to leave his cell, but eventually came out with our therapy dogs. When I asked why the dogs coaxed him out, he said that dogs were the only constant in his life growing up.
A Culture of Constant Improvement
Implementing these reforms has not always been easy, particularly because many changes are not only a revision in policy, but also a transformational shift in broader mindset and culture. For Colorado, the success is visible in the data. When we started implementing these reforms, the perception was that violence and other negative incidents would spike as a result. But our data showed that a year into the reforms, our overall assaults were at their lowest rate since 2006. Suicide and self-harm were also down. We shared that data and continued to implement reforms that further improved it.
When we introduced these policy changes, a sergeant told me we were going to get somebody killed. Six months later, he told me that incidents had dropped by 80 percent at his facility. You can’t argue with that kind of data. The hard numbers have converted some of the biggest skeptics into strong believers in reducing restrictive housing. Our facilities are safer as a direct result of these reforms. Ninety-seven percent of our inmates will eventually return to the community, so when our facilities are safer, our communities are safer.
When we began, not only was there no map for what we were doing, there was no road. Not everything we have done has worked, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. When we’re considering how to reform a flawed system that has been in place hundreds of years, we can’t be afraid to try new things, and to fail often. We learn from failure just as we learn from success.
One of the most common pushbacks I’ve received to reform is the question, “what if something bad happens?” Bad things were happening before we started this work — enough bad things that it was our moral responsibility to try something different. Not everything we try works, and it is sometimes a tragedy when things go wrong. I know we’re on the right path in Colorado because the data show that fewer bad things are happening now than before we implemented these reforms.
The reforms we’ve implemented are not comprehensive, and we’re nowhere near done. We pilot, evaluate, and fine-tune as we go. We constantly revise our programs, going one step at a time but always working toward reforms that will further the ultimate mission of corrections: improving public safety.
About “Notes from the Field”
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.