Proposed Law Would Limit the Use of Solitary Confinement in Colorado

March 26, 2021

By: Aubree Hughes, Director of Communications, Mental Health Colorado

Originally appeared in the Pagosa Daily Post

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 Representative Judy Amabile and Senator 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 22 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 and 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. Fully 50% of suicides in jails and prisons occur among the 3% or 5% or 8% of prisoners in solitary confinement at a given time.”

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 1:30pm.

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.

Aubree Hughes is Director of Communications at Mental Health Colorado.