Proposed Law Would Limit the Use of Solitary Confinement in Colorado Jails

March 25, 2021

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Aubree Hughes, Director of Communications

Proposed Law Would Limit the Use of Solitary Confinement in Colorado Jails
Studies Show Psychological Stress from Isolation Compares to Physical Torture

DENVER—As in most other states across the nation, individuals with serious mental health conditions are entering Colorado’s criminal justice system at alarming rates as a result of unmet health needs. Some of the most seriously ill of these individuals, many of whom are jailed pre-trial and are still presumed innocent of any crime, are placed in solitary confinement, where their health deteriorates further. Mental Health Colorado and bill sponsors Rep. Judy Amabile and Sen. Pete Lee are championing House Bill 21-1211, Regulation of Restrictive Housing in Jails. The law would eliminate the practice of placing juveniles and people with specific health conditions—including Individuals with a serious mental health condition—in solitary confinement in Colorado jails.

Given the lack of statewide standards for Colorado jails, there is no consistent definition of restrictive housing, as solitary confinement is sometimes called in corrections industry jargon. If passed, this bill will not eliminate the practice of confining people in isolation but will establish minimum protective standards in the state’s larger jails. Restrictive housing is defined in the bill as involuntary placement which confines an individual in a cell separately from other individuals with fewer than twenty two hours per week  out of the cell.“The solitary confinement of people with serious mental illness and other health conditions is harmful to the point of being excruciating,” said Mental Health Colorado President & CEO Vincent Atchity. “Our well-being and integrity as a humane community depend on putting an end to this harmful practice. Putting sick people in cages alone, leaving sick people to suffer in cruel restraints? This is not really who we want to be as a people and a state.”

Studies have shown that psychological stress from prolonged confinement in isolation clinically compares to the distress of physical torture. Individuals with mental health conditions are more likely to be incarcerated longer and are more likely to be placed in solitary while in jail. Evidence from the Department of Correction’s efforts to reduce solitary confinement in Colorado’s prisons shows that less use of this practice does not increase violence.

“As a psychiatrist, the most disturbed patients I have ever examined are prisoners I encountered in solitary confinement settings,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, author of Solitary and expert in mental health in correctional settings. “Suicide is epidemic in solitary confinement because of the despair the isolation induces.”

HB 21-1211 only applies to Colorado’s largest jails—those with over 400 beds. Additionally, the bill requires jails to submit data on the use of solitary. The bill will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on March 30 at 1:30 p.m.

About Mental Health Colorado:

Mental Health Colorado is the state’s leading advocate for promoting mental well-being, ending shame and discrimination, and ensuring equitable access to mental health and substance use care. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and affiliate of Mental Health America.