Solitary Confinement and Torture: Resources

Solitary Confinement:


                                                                                                                          Moving Beyond Solitary Confinement:
                                                                                       Making the Case for Public SafetyRick_Raemisch.jpgIAHR_Logo.jpg
                              An Interview with Rick Raemisch
Director, Colorado Department of Corrections 


In 2011, when Tom Clements was hired as Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), 1500 people – nearly 7 percent of the state’s prisoners – were in solitary confinement. A person stayed in a cell 23 hours a day, often for years. Then one day, often with no transition, he or she was on a bus going home. Tom Clements wanted to change the state’s use of solitary confinement, and in the two years he had in office, he cut the number of people in solitary confinement in half. But he didn’t get the chance to complete his work. On March 19, 2013, he opened the door of his home and was murdered by a man who had recently been released directly to the community from solitary confinement. 

As Tom Clements’s successor, Rick Raemisch was charged by Governor John Hickenlooper with making the changes Tom Clements had not lived long enough to complete. The Governor wanted to limit or eliminate solitary confinement for people with mental illness. He wanted to understand and address the needs of people who were in solitary confinement for long periods. And he wanted to reduce the number of them released back to their community without preparation.

The new Director shared the passion for change, and he thought it would help him as a leader to understand something of what it felt like to endure solitary confinement. In January 2014, he had himself committed to an administrative segregation cell with a steel door and the bed, toilet, and sink bolted to the floor. He expected some quiet time, he says, but there was no quiet: only blaring televisions, banging, and the loud screaming of angry prisoners. The lights stayed on all night, and prisoners were awakened at intervals throughout the night for required checks by correctional officers. After only 20 hours, as he wrote in a New York Times editorial, he was wondering how long it would take for the experience to “chip away” at his sane mind.[1] What would it be like to endure this for years? What would it be like to endure it with mental illness?

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A System Transformed

Today, Rick Raemisch says, a person walking through Colorado’s repurposed Supermax prison hears no banging and screaming, but instead, quiet voices. The maximum amount of time anyone spends in solitary confinement is one year, and that is only for the most violent offenders. When people go in, they know why they are there, and they know when they will get out. This is in sharp contrast to the “level” system used in many states, in which people must work their way down through different levels to earn release; one bad day can take you back to level one, and months can become years as the indefinite confinement goes on.

Today, no one is released directly from solitary to the community; instead, the state has developed a step down program to prepare people for community law. By state law, no one classified as seriously mentally ill can be held in solitary. The state has a total of 150 people in restrictive housing – less than 1 percent of the total prison population.

Owning the Vision, Moving as a Team 

Director Raemisch did not make these changes by fiat. He knew his staff – especially the wardens and their staff – had to believe in them or the new policies would fail. Even more, he knew he needed their help. So the new Director invited those who knew the system best to help him change it. 

His pitch was simple and direct. “We’ve lost sight of our mission,” he told his managers. “We’re using segregation to try to keep the prisons safe and easy to run. But what about the community? What about public safety?” People can easily end up in solitary for having a big mouth or not following the rules. The goal is efficiency. But what happens when they come home after all those years without human interaction? Rick Raemisch challenged his staff with a question: “Do you want someone who has been in solitary confinement for years moving next door?” If DOC’s primary mission is public safety, he asked, then how is returning someone to the community in worse shape than when they entered the system serving the public? “You’re saying someone is too dangerous to be in the general population, but we can release them directly back to the community? That’s a good policy?”

The Colorado team got it, and they got busy. Groups of corrections staff worked together from the ground up, debating issues and building a new process. Staff were all part of the policy change and helped develop new procedures. Minor offenses now result in minor sanctions: loss of the TV for a while, limited canteen, or a loss of privileges. New recruits are carefully trained not simply on the new procedures, but on the radically new philosophy behind them. Staff are safer because of the changes – inmate on staff assaults are the lowest since 2006 – but that doesn’t mean their jobs are easier. Now, officers are problem solvers and have some tools to prevent infractions. For example, an inmate can request time in a quiet de-escalation room. Instead of “blowing sky high,” the person can say, “I need some time out.”

No Map, No Road: But Moving Ahead Anyhow 

On June 6, 2014, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed legislation barring the state from placing people who are incarcerated and have serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia) in long-term solitary confinement. Today, the Director believes the system is in full compliance. How does he know? Before anyone is placed in segregation, he or she must be assessed for the presence of serious mental illness. Working as a team, clinical experts and correctional officers determine whether a mental illness may have caused the violation. If so, the response is treatment, not punishment. 

People who are incarcerated with mental illness, many of whom were once held in solitary confinement, are housed in one of two prisons where they receive treatment. For Colorado, the Director says, there was no map and no road to where they wanted to go; but through trial and error and persistent teamwork, they are moving. The innovative “10 and 10” program ensures that people with serious mental illness are out of their cells at least 10 hours for treatment and 10 hours for recreation every week. Rick Raemisch says with satisfaction, “No more putting them in a cell 23 hours a day and letting the demons chase them around.”

The team tracks data with care to understand the results of the changes they are making, and the results are promising. Less use of restraints. Less violence. Fewer cell extractions. Fewer assaults. Less self-harm. Less recidivism. “We believe these reforms have led to safer institutions,” said Director Raemisch, “and in the long run, since 97% of our inmates return to the community, they have also led to safer communities.” 

“This Can Be Done Anywhere” 

Rick Raemisch does not believe the changes made in Colorado are the results of a unique set of circumstances. He believes any system can tackle the problem of excessive use of solitary confinement and succeed. He is currently working with other members of the American Correctional Association to develop new standards to help the field move forward. His share of “Catholic guilt,” he says, may be part of what drives him to “do the right thing.” His vision is partly faith driven: “But some of it is just because we are human beings.” 

For those who want to change their systems, he has only encouragement. “You have to have a clear vision, and you have to push it. Talk about it. Explain the ‘why.’ Have some passion. Put a team together as passionate as you are – and go to work.” 


Thank you, Colorado, for being a pathfinder in safe
alternatives to solitary confinement!

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 IAHR_Logo.jpgPennsylvania Implements Humane Strategies for
  Treating People with Mental Illness in State Prisons 

Featuring Lynn Patrone: Mental Health Advocate

Issue_1.gifThe findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) were grim. A federal civil rights investigation concluded that by keeping them in their cells 22 to 23 hours daily, the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Pennsylvania, had violated constitutional rights of people who had mental illness or intellectual disabilities. The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) prohibits a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities, and in 2013 Pennsylvania had shown just such a pattern. The review found that the state’s misuse of solitary confinement had caused mental strain, depression, psychosis, self-mutilation, and suicide. Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant secretary general for civil rights at DOJ, wrote:

We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution.[2]

Today, Lynn Patrone is proud to be on the team of John Wetzel, Secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC), and she credits the profound changes the state has made in large part to his determination to improve mental health services in state prisons. Lynn was appointed in May 2015, as the Mental Health Advocate for DOC. Pennsylvania is very likely the only state that has created such a position within DOC. On her appointment, Secretary Wetzel said he expected her to help “ensure that offenders are getting the treatment they should while in prison” and that they are “connected with benefits upon their release from prison.”

 Skills are Up and Infractions Are Down

Today, prisoners who have serious mental illnesses are housed in specialized units staffed by officers who have received 32 hours of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). The curriculum was adapted from the Memphis model and adapted to Pennsylvania’s needs. Officers are skilled in recognizing symptoms that might be related to mental illness and using techniques to de-escalate a situation and prevent misconduct. They may observe that a person is struggling emotionally and intervene utilizing the skills they learned through CIT. Trainees also learn recovery-based intervention skills, such as asking questions to understand what led to an incident as opposed to issuing an immediate misconduct. Data show that empathy and crisis intervention skills go a long way toward prevention. Under the new system, infractions have steadily decreased.

When nonviolent misconduct occurs, the matter is referred for an informal hearing and, if needed, psychological services are provided. More serious infractions are reviewed by a psychiatric team that includes a psychiatrist and psychologist, who conduct a psychological evaluation and determine whether the misconduct was a result of mental illness. If necessary, the individual is consigned to diversionary treatment. Even if the person is segregated in these units, he will spend a minimum of 20 hours out of the cell engaging with program staff. Segregation never persists months on end. While the person loses some freedom, the focus is on addressing the cause of poor behavior choices and preventing future ones. 

 Certified Peer Specialists: Bringing an Evidence-Based Practice to Prisons

There’s another reason that infractions are down in the Pennsylvania system. Long considered an evidence-based practice in the mental health field, Pennsylvania is a pioneer in employing certified peer specialists throughout the state prison system. Over 500 certified peer specialists – people who are incarcerated and who themselves have a mental illness – have been trained to help others who are coping with the symptoms of mental illness. Lynn explains that these specialists receive a 75-hour training program to prepare them for one of the highest-paid jobs in the prison system. Candidates must be role model inmates with record free of conduct issues for a given period. Their impact, Lynn says, has been “phenomenal.” The peers visit people with mental illness on suicide watch, in the infirmary, on mental health units, or in the general population. They give others a chance to open up about their challenges and learn coping skills from someone who has “been there.” Most importantly, they offer hope. 

Lynn has plans for taking the state’s innovative program one critical step further. Many people who are incarcerated – both men and women – have experienced trauma, and the symptoms of trauma can keep them cycling from community to prison. Lynn plans to introduce a curriculum on trauma-informed care to help peers upgrade their skills further and enable them to coach others on how to manage the troubling symptoms that often haunt people who have experienced trauma, such as child abuse. Many people who commit crimes have themselves been victims. By helping them heal, the system can also protect communities from future violence.

A Vital Link for People in Prison and Their Families

Lynn herself plays a key role in ensuring that people with mental illness leave prison better able to lead satisfying and productive lives than the day they entered. She travels to every prison in the state system and lets people know that she is there for them and can help ensure access to treatment. Her credibility is enhanced by her own experience with mental illness, and she doesn’t hesitate to share it. She participates in discussion groups, listens to needs, and follows up on the needs of individuals.

People will sometimes cry, Lynn says, because they are able to talk to someone. They see that something was created just for them. Someone will fight for them, if need be, and help them get through. They can share some of the intense challenges of coping with mental illness who “gets it.” For many, that is entirely new in their lives. 

While some people with mental illness have no friends or family to support them, others have family members who worry about them. When someone is anxious about a loved one with mental illness, they can call Lynn or write a letter. She follows up, often visiting with the person and then letting the family know how they are doing. “You’re an angel!” said a thankful mother recently. “My son said he had a great visit. Now I know he’s okay.

Addressing Mental Illness Benefits Individuals, Communities, Families – and Prisons 

The impact of the changes Pennsylvania is making are still being measured. Already, the kind of incidents that often result in extended solitary confinement are declining. As the correctional system improves its ability to identify and help individuals struggling to live with mental illness, both individuals and the prison system will be safer. And because people with mental illness are no longer forced to endure prolonged confinement – which has been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness – they will leave prison better prepared to rejoin their communities, and recidivism is expected to go down. However significant the savings in financial terms, however, restoring the hope of a fulfilling life is beyond price

Thank you, Pennsylvania for being a pathfinder in safe alternatives to solitary
confinement for persons with mental illness! 

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D.C. Residents Who Are Convicted of a Crime Face Isolation: A Close-Up with Philip Fornaci

Phillip_Fomaci.jpgPhilip Fornaci, who directed the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for 10 years, has been actively involved in issues related to D.C.’s prisons and jails for 25 years. His work has included litigation on behalf of D.C. prisoners around conditions of confinement, advocacy, and testimony before Congress. He recently took the time to brief IAHR on serious and timely issues related to conditions of confinement for D. C. prisoners.

The D.C. “Revitalization” Act Assaults Family and Community Ties

In 1997, President Clinton signed the D.C. Revitalization Act. The District of Columbia government was nearly bankrupt, and the federal government moved in to take over the financial burden of incarcerating people convicted of felonies in D.C. All these people are now sent to facilities run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), far from family and friends. The nearest such prison is in Cumberland, MD, but most are sent to California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, or Kentucky. Why do we care? Mr. Fornaci explains:

  • These people become “invisible.” No D.C. agency has the mission or ability to keep tabs on what happens to them – “and some have terrible things happen to them.” As Mr. Fornaci says, “lack of transparency means darkness.”
  • People are isolated from their families, many of whom do not have the financial resources to travel to see family members. As a result, the family ties that are so important in reducing recidivism may weaken. There is no opportunity for reconciliation, and the psychological boost that helps people “keep it together” while incarcerated is lacking. Many have no visitors at all. Yet, research, for example a 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, shows that having visitors reduces the likelihood of recidivism. 
  • When people are released, reentry planning is poor at best because people working far from D.C. are unfamiliar with housing or the local economy. There is no D.C. agency that is regularly informed and prepared to facilitate re-entry.

While the law also attempted to give a giant boost to private prisons by requiring that half of these people be sent to privately owned prisons within the BOP, this provision was never enforced. However, the Rivers Correctional Institute, the second largest private prison in the country, was built to house D.C. prisoners and immigrants. It is located in North Carolina.

Until 2011, juveniles convicted as adults were included in this population and sent to North Dakota, on the few federal facilities for juveniles. Following a concerted advocacy effort, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to house juveniles in the D.C. correctional facility, where some of them are subjected to solitary confinement. When they are no longer juveniles, they can still be sent away.

CSCOSA: An Agency without Accountability

The so-called D.C. Revitalization Act also created the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (COSOSA), which is responsible for pretrial, parole, and supervised release supervision for D.C. offenders. This critical agency, which is supposed to help people reintegrated in their community, has literally no line of report to any D.C. agency. The U.S. Parole Commission makes parole decisions based on CSOSA recommendations.

With CSOSA, critical policy decisions are out of D.C.’s control. The majority of parole revocations are for marijuana use, which many would see as a minor infraction that should not result in return to prison. Yet, D. C. has no opportunity to voice a concern.

Solitary Confinement is Common in Both D.C. Jail and BOP

The Bureau of Prisons, Mr. Fornaci tells us, uses solitary confinement freely, often as a response to very minor violations of rules. At the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania prison, where some D.C. prisoners have been sent, people have been placed in solitary confinement for as long as 15 years. Mr. Fornaci gets calls frequently from worried family members, but BOP is “one of the most unresponsive federal agencies” and there is usually little that can be done.

In D. C. jails, similarly, people are often placed in solitary confinement for extended periods (2 years is common, 6 years is the limit), often for slight cause. Mr. Fornaci litigated a case in which a person was placed in solitary confinement for having gotten a plastic cup from the wrong place. Confinement is sometimes not solitary, and a tiny space may be shared this with one other person who is also locked up 23 hours per day. At the Central Treatment Facility, where juveniles as well as adults are held – and where, in reality, there is limited access to treatment – solitary confinement for extended periods is also common.

An Opportunity for Change: CCA’s Contract is Up for Renewal in 2017

In June of 2015, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs release a report focused on conditions of confinement in the District of Columbia. The report found them “appalling,” highlighting significant problems with the physical condition of the D.C. jails, lack of concern for inmate safety and suicide prevention, inadequate facilities and programming for youth, lack of transparency, and many other issues. Mr. Fornaci noted that a “political opening” exists at the moment because the 20-year contract of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) will expire in 2017. CCA is well connected politically and, as a private entity, has an interest in filling as many local beds in correctional facilities as possible. Project renewal provides a much-needed opportunity to talk about conditions, and the more light that can be shed on the contract and the deficiencies of CCA, the better. D. C. residents in particular will want to review the report and follow up with Council members.

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Safe Alternatives to Solitary Confinement
U.S. Leaders Share Progress and Insights

On September 29, 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice convened a short meeting to explore what a few states are learning about how to end over-reliance on extended solitary confinement in correctional systems. Researcher Craig Haney reminded attendees why this is essential. He noted that a robust literature on mental and physical harms of the practice shows it can lead to despair and anger, destabilization of the sense of self, and a loss of ability to relate to others. It can also amplify symptoms of mental illness. Shaka Senhor, who spent a total of 7 years in solitary confinement, vividly evoked the experience and pointed out that the damaged people subjected to it may one day be “somebody’s neighbor.” He stressed that “we have every tool available to make the right decision” and challenged policy makers to move toward change.

What does Germany Do?

 To help people think “outside the box,” Jorg Jesse, the Director General of Prison and Probation Administration in Mecklenburg, Germany, described how his country sees the experience of incarceration. In Germany, the maximum period for solitary confinement is 3 months, and the warden must have the consent of a higher authority to impose this extreme punishment. Instead, the country sees the aim of incarceration as resocialization. Only 5 percent of court cases result in prison sentences (in the U.S., it is 65 percent), and correctional officers must have years of training to become effective problem solvers who can further the country’s aim of reducing recidivism. Their aim is to help people who are incarcerated prepare to live a life without crime, a life with “no more victims.” To encourage positive behavior, the system emphasizes the use of incentives as well as deterrents. Sanctions in response to inappropriate behavior might include reducing leisure or work time, reducing the money a person can make, or removing something the person values, such as a radio or TV.

U.S. Leaders are on the Move!

Some states and communities are leading positive change in the U.S. We heard from executives in Colorado, Washington, and New Mexico, as well as the Hampden County Correctional Center, that it is possible to reduce over-reliance on solitary confinement, advance the interests of public safety, and make prison settings safer.

Policy Changes in Colorado Reduce Assaults and Advance Public Safety

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was appointed to his position to fulfill the vision of the previous director, who was assassinated by a person who had spent years in solitary confinement. He has gained the cooperation of staff by emphasizing the public safety mission of correctional facilities: “When you send someone back to the community in worse shape than they came in, you have failed. “People in solitary confinement in Colorado represented 7 percent of the prison population in 2011, but less than 1 percent today. Assaults on inmates and staff are the lowest since 2006, a change the Director attributes to new policies that decrease the time people spend in solitary confinement. One year is now an absolute maximum and is imposed only in extreme cases such as assault and rape. Policies also emphasize the need to identify and treat mental illness when it is the underlying cause of a behavioral problem.

Staff Involvement Helps Guide Change in Maine

The Hampden County Correctional Center describes itself on its web site as a “a model of safe, secure, orderly, lawful, humane, and productive corrections, where inmates are challenged to pick up the tools and directions to build a law-abiding life in an atmosphere free from violence.” Assistant Superintendent Richard McCarthy explained that the Massachusetts facility took the path of reform in 2008, asking staff to identify alternatives to solitary confinement. Changes emphasized positive reinforcement for people on the right track who had previously been in solitary confinement. They could earn the right to time in an exercise cell and were eligible for good time. Many “stepped down” to the general population, and the facility now has 68 percent fewer people in segregation. There has been no increase in violence, and the changed climate of the facility has benefitted both staff and the people held there.

Cognitive-Behavioral Programs Work in Washington

Bernie Warner, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, said the state is working to move to an evidence-based approach to corrections and has launched promising initiatives to end long-term segregation. The state began with a study of who was in segregation and why, learning that people with mental health issues and gang members were overrepresented. Washington is seeking to create programs that seek to help people in these populations change their behavior. Cognitive-behavioral programs seek to change the thinking and behavior of gang members, and an Intensive Transition Program to help people prepare to return to their communities has had an 80 percent success rate. Like Hampden County, Washington engaged corrections staff in creating its promising programs. The state also trained them to communicate more effectively with people experiencing serious mental illness. The Secretary noted that as the more costly units that rely on solitary confinement are closed (three times as many staff are needed to run these restrictive facilities), resources are freed to support more effective alternatives.

New Mexico Offers Gang Members a Way Out

 Gregg Marcantel, the Secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department, reported that the state “stole” Washington’s innovative approach to “managing offender change” and ran with it. They distinguished between predators in gangs and people who were simply gang members and might want out. The state created a special management unit for people who wanted to leave gangs and created a step-down program leading to transition and release. He noted that people tend to “fall or rise to expectations,” and creating an expectation of change has helped people change their behavior – and with those changes, altered the state’s reliance on solitary confinement.

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[1] Rick Raemisch, My Night in Solitary. New York Times, February 21, 2014.

[2] U.S. Department of Justice. Justice Department Finds Pennsylvania State Prison’s Use of Solitary Confinement Violates Rights of Prisoners Under the Constitution and Americans with Disabilities Act (May 31, 2013). See:

 Reports on Solitary

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Torture Reading List

These four books are the must reads:

  • The Dark Side: the Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer - the most thorough account of how we went from America and torture before 9/11 to where we are today.
  • Torture and Democracy by Darius M. Rejali - a seminal book, a history and analysis of Democracies and Torture.
  • A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror CIA by Alfred McCoy - the history of the CIA and torture.
  • Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War by Mark Danner - a book about more than torture, it includes the single most penetrating analysis of America’s sad embrace of torture in the past 10 years.

Here are four books that are powerful and eloquent on the subject of torture and morality:

  • Torture is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out edited by George Hunsinger.
  • Torture: Religious Ethics and National Security by John Perry.
  • Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror by Charles Fried and Gregory Fried.
  • Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ by William T. Cavanaugh.

All of these books and Voltaire’s essay are incredibly helpful in developing a deeper understanding of torture:

  • American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond by Michael Otterman.
  • Ghost Plane: The True Story of The CIA Rendition and Torture Program by Stephen Grey
  • Guantanamo: What the World Should Know by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray.
  • Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb, David Luban’s Essay is the best discussion of the ticking time bomb scenario.
  • Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror by Steven H. Miles, M.D.
  • The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry.
  • The Torture Debate in America edited by Karen J. Greenberg.
  • The Torture Papers: The road to Abu Ghraib edited by Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel.
  • Torture: Does it Make Us Safer? Is it Ever OK? : A Human Rights Perspective Edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden.
  • Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror by Mark Danner.
  • Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values by Philippe Sands.
  • Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture by Jennifer K. Harbury.
  • Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays - Voltaire’s eloquent defense of Jean Calais and his excoriation of torture marks the beginning of the modern human rights movement.

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