A Tribute to a Reformer, and Victim, of the State Prison System

Gov. John Hickenlooper in his state of the state address on Thursday paid tribute to Tom Clements, the state prisons chief who was murdered in his home.

The governor noted the irony of Clements’ death, a man who had worked to reform the common practice of solitary confinement for the mentally ill within the prisons, as well as the state parole system. Clements’ killer was Evan Ebel,  a mentally ill inmate paroled directly from a lengthy period of solitary confinement.

Here's how Gov. Hickenlooper put his tribute:

"Tom saw the entrenched problems. But he never gave up. He saw what could and what should be. His philosophies and strategies were never about locking people up, but rather, everything Tom did – really his whole life – was about striving to unlock humanity."

The governor said Clements' "life is not defined by what happened to him but by the immense good he achieved and his legacy of love and compassion and reform."

One of Clements’ legacies was the state Department of Corrections’ directive in December to remove all seriously mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement – a kind of punishment that has been characterized as cruel and unusual.

The deadline for this process was to be the end of 2013. As of last Monday, prisons spokesman Roger Hudson told I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS, there were still four mentally ill inmates still held in isolation, with three of them in the process of being stepped down. That’s down from 87 in March 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU — which worked closely with Clements and his successor Rick Raemisch — has credited the corrections department for its progress in ending solitary confinement for the seriously mentally ill, while saying that problems remain.

The definition of mentally ill leaves too much room for interpretation, the ACLU argues, while the alternatives to solitary confinement are often little better.

Still, with prisons serving as the primary residential facilities for people with mental illness in Colorado, this kind of improvement for inmates has to be seen as a public health gain.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind is an original short film from the ACLU of Colorado about a man who spent 15 years in solitary confinement in Colorado prisons and now suffers from debilitating mental illness.