Colorado Bill Proposes Curbs on Use of Solitary in Jails

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A bill tabled in the Colorado legislature would require jails to keep adults and youth with certain medical and mental health conditions out of solitary confinement, following in the footsteps of existing prison legislation with strict isolation rules, The Colorado Sun reports.

Despite the fact that Colorado banned the use of long-term solitary confinement in state prisons in 2017, advocates have pointed the scant oversight over local jails who employ the practice.

House Bill 1211, if passed, would prohibit local jails with over 400-bed capacity from “placing an individual in restrictive housing” if the individual has a diagnosis or self-reports a serious mental disorder, exhibits signs of self-harm, auditorily or visual impairments, neurocognitive or intellectual impairments.

The bill also states if someone is under the age of 18 or is pregnant, they should not be in “restrictive housing” — defined as when an inmate is involuntarily confined to their cell for 22 or more hours a day, with limited time outside of their cell, according to the bill’s language.

The Colorado legislation is the latest example of a growing movement to limit the use of solitary. A jail in Cook County, Illinois — one of the nation’s largest with roughly 5,500 detainees — hasn’t used solitary confinement since 2016, according to the Washington Post. Moreover, New York City has made the move to end solitary confinement in jails earlier in March of this year. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the practice a “mistaken approach that only serves to set back rehabilitation of prisoners,” according to U.S. News & World Report. 

Currently, data hasn’t been able to capture the full image of those who suffer from mental illness nationwide.

“But people with serious mental illness tend to be disproportionately placed in solitary confinement because of their impaired thinking and behavioral issues,” according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for better treatment for individuals with mental illness.

Many advocates and family members that have seen first-hand the damages of solitary confinement are in full support, while others in the criminal justice field worry about not being able to provide what is being asked of them under this new bill, citing costs and understaffing.

Taking an average from January 2017, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office says that out of the 417 people in the facility, 43 percent had some sort of diagnosed mental illness while 10 percent of the mentally ill inmates in Boulder County are kept in restrictive housing, The Colorado Sun details.

An October 2016 report said that the Boulter County Jail was overcrowded, with more than 200 people in the facility each day with serious mental health problems, according to the Boulder Weekly.

It also costs the county an average of $133 a day per inmate at the jail — making the price an average of 20 percent higher for someone with a mental illness. However, the new bill doesn’t provide any new state funding for local jails, The Colorado Sun details.

Because of the high cost, overcrowding, and understaffing, tragic events have taken place before as a result of solitary confinement use in Colorado jails.

In 2016, Ryan Partridge was an inmate at a local Boulder jail for minor charges. At the time, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffering from paranoia, delusions and psychosis, The Colorado Sun reports.

While in jail, he was often placed in restraints or kept in solitary isolation for several days at a time, according to his father, Richard Partridge. He explained that after his son was placed in confinement, his “mental health rapidly deteriorated.

While in solitary, Ryan broke his front teeth on the toilet in the room, wouldn’t wear clothes, and ate his own feces.

Eventually, he gouged his own eyes out, blinding himself and prompting his family to sue the Boulder County jail for “excessive force” like tackling, punching, and tasing him to gain control.

The lawsuit also cites negligence and a failure to provide medical treatment, according to the Boulder Weekly.

‘Jails are Not Mental Hospitals’

Despite the fact that families and victim advocates support the latest Colorado legislation, county sheriffs are opposed, discussing concerns about attacks on deputies, and a lack of funding and staff to implement the needed changes.

Boulder County jails are continually overcrowded and understaffed, making resource-intensive treatment for inmates like Ryan “challenging to manage, the Boulder Weekly details.

“The jail is not built to deal with mentally ill folks,” says Jeff Goetz, division chief at Boulder County Jail, according to the Boulder Weekly. “We’ve got hard fixtures, we have no padded cells here. We’re not designed to house that type of an individual. … And yet that’s what the expectation is.”

The short-staffing is also a documented issue, considering that the inmate population has steadily grown over time, but staffing hasn’t.

A county commissioner’s review a few years ago reviled that Boulder County Jail was short-staffed by 30 people. Since this review, the county has slowly allocated funding for new positions, but the Boulder Weeklycites that staffing is still nowhere near the capacity it needs to be.

Sheriffs also pointed to limited medical and behavioral health staff to conduct assessments in the 15-minute intervals required under the bill, The Colorado Sun details.

Overall, state legislators hope that this new bill will be motivated to make the necessary changes so that inmates are treated according to their needs.

“The bill is a step forward in protecting … our state’s most vulnerable. It isn’t a fix for our entire mental health care and judicial system, but it is humane,” The Colorado Sun quotes state Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation, along with state Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat.

State Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican, told The Colorado Springs that lawmakers shouldn’t impose such “broad requirements” without giving counties additional funding.

“If we’re going to go down this road, what we really need, colleagues, is … an assessment of what the additional staffing needs are, county by county,” Carver said. “Let’s cost it out and then let’s help our local counties get there with the additional funding.”

The legislation is headed to the House floor for final consideration. After that, the legislation will be heard in the state Senate.

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