On January 28, a man named Evan Ebel was released from prison after eight years—most of it spent in solitary confinement. Less than two months later, Ebel rang the doorbell at the Monument home of Tom Clements, the chief of Colorado prisons. When Clements opened the door, Ebel shot him dead.
Ebel had grown uncharacteristically paranoid and agitated during his time in isolation, his father Jack Ebel told Colorado lawmakers in 2011. Jack Ebel had pushed unsuccessfully to increase the step-down period following solitary confinement to a prisoner’s return to the community.
In a bitter irony that’s been frequently noted, Clements was an ally in that reform effort. The Department of Corrections chief had voiced grave misgivings about the use of solitary confinement in Colorado prisons. The number of inmates in what’s called administrative segregation shrank under his watch.
Rebecca Wallace, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado, told I-News that Clements was a valuable partner in her organization’s work to reduce the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners, in particular.
“When Mr. Clements died, the progress we thought we had been making,” said Wallace, “stalled dramatically.”
At the time of Clements’ death, the ACLU had been working to document what it charged were human rights abuses in Colorado prisons, reporting that at least 87 inmates with serious mental illness were held in solitary confinement, with 54 of them held for more than a year. Mentally ill prisoners were more likely than others to be held in solitary confinement, and the isolation often meant that their mental health spiraled downward.
Sam Mandez was presented as a haunting example of the system’s ills, in this video produced by the ACLU.
At the age of 18, Mandez was found guilty — in a trial marred with inconsistencies — of murdering an elderly woman when he was 14. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Described by friends and family as a lively kid and a good athlete, Mandez had no recorded psychiatric problems when he was imprisoned. But he was placed in solitary confinement soon after his imprisonment in 1996, and his mind unraveled, they said.
In the ACLU’s video, he describes a world he shares with no one: He’s a champion boxer, who fought at Madison Square Garden. He’s told a psychiatrist he’s the primary architect of Denver International Airport, and that he has 11 children. He hears a woman’s voice speaking within his head.
Mandez was held in solitary confinement for 16 years. Late last year, due to the ACLU’s work, he was put into a prison-run residential treatment program, but remained in solitary confinement. Severely understaffed, the program was able to provide Mandez only 12 minutes of individual therapy a week, the ACLU said.
Some recent progress was made toward ending the use of administrative segregation for prisoners with mental illness. In a memo distributed last week, the Colorado Department of Corrections has instructed corrections officials to stop putting mentally ill inmates into solitary confinement. Eight seriously mentally ill inmates remain in solitary confinement, the department told lawmakers earlier last week. They too will be removed from administrative segregation by the end of the year.
Wallace commended the department for its progress. But she expressed concerns that the definition of mental illness put forward by prison officials wasn’t explicit enough, and allowed for wide interpretation by corrections officials. In practice, said Wallace, inmates with serious mental illness might still be held in isolation.
At the same time, the alternative to solitary confinement often looks disturbingly similar to it, Wallace said. Many inmates are likely to be transferred to the kind of residential treatment program now holding Mandez – where solitary confinement is still common. Those prisoners incapable of adjusting their behavior might remain isolated indefinitely, instead of moving up to less-restrictive levels of treatment.
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS has reported that years of funding shortfalls have damaged the state’s ability to care for people with mental illness – making jails and prisons the largest residential treatment facilities in Colorado. Those with serious mental illness are far more likely to wind up in the custody of the Department of Corrections than in the care of an inpatient treatment facility.
For now, hopes of broader reform to the mental health system in Colorado are pinned on a plan to increase funding for crisis services – theoretically diverting the stream of mentally ill people from prisons and emergency rooms.
But the state’s effort to launch that project has been badly botched – less than half of the $19.8 million earmarked for crisis services this year will actually be spent, I-News has reported.