The debate over solitary confinement in Colorado jails

May 12, 2021

By: Anusha Roy

Report originally found on 9news

Both sides actually agree on some things, including that safety is first. What happens after that is up for debate.

DENVER — Both sides debating a proposed bill that would impact restrictive housing in jails agree on some things, including that safety is first.

But how to go about that is where they differ.

Colorado House Bill 1211 proposes restrictions on when a jail can put someone in restrictive housing. It’s focused on people living with serious mental illness, pregnant women and people living with physical and developmental disabilities.

“Define solitary confinement as being left in your cell for more than 22 hours a day,” said Democratic State Rep. Judy Amabile, who is one of the bill sponsors.

Amabile said the bill is asking jails to allow people out of their cells for more than two hours a day. She and other supporters of the bill said solitary confinement can worsen a person’s health conditions.

Lauren Snyder, with Mental Health Colorado, testified saying, “The psychological stress created from solitary confinement compares to the distress of physical torture.”

“We should not be housing people with mental illness in our jails,” said Amabile. “That’s something for the state to take a long hard look at.”

For now, the debate is over what is happening inside jails, which, in many cases, have become the de-facto place for behavioral health services.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said they offer 150 hours a week of mental health services within his facility. He said the safety of all their inmates, and access to medical and mental health services and treatment, is a top priority.

He also said he has concerns about the proposed bill.

“Let’s put money in facilities so we can divert people from custody,” said the sheriff.

Brown said to carry out the proposed bill safely would cost roughly $2 million and require hiring as many as 40 people. He isn’t sure where the money would come from.

“We would subdivide our day rooms and common areas inside our housing units,” he said. “Subdivide and make sure we have appropriate staffing.”

The bill has exceptions for those who don’t want to leave their cell, or if it’s not safe for the inmate or others around them.

This could trigger frequent checks on the inmates.

While testifying about this bill, sheriffs indicated jails have systems in place for check-in frequencies.

The proposal would also require a court order to keep an inmate in restrictive housing for more than 15 days in a row.

Sheriff Brown said he is worried about that legal process being set up and if it will move quickly enough.

The bill is focused on the nine biggest jails with 400 or more beds. The bill sponsor said they heard from smaller department and acknowledged they wouldn’t have the staff or resources to meet the demands.

As for funding, Amabile said there is some funding to the tune of $14 million sheriffs could tap but also acknowledged they may have to look elsewhere to cover total costs.

Brown said it wouldn’t be enough to split across all the departments that would be impacted by this proposed bill.

HB21-1211 passed a second reading in the Senate Tuesday and is set for a third reading this week.