Did Some of Colorado's Prison Reforms Die With Tom Clements?

This week's cover story traces the dramatic shift in direction of the Colorado Department of Corrections since the 2013 murder of its chief, Tom Clements, by Evan Ebel, a violent parolee who'd just spent six years in solitary confinement. The death of the reform-minded Clements had a profound impact on DOC operations, leadership and morale, but the lasting effects of the tragedy on prison policy and public safety are still being debated.

See also: After the Murder of Tom Clements, Can Colorado's Prison System Rehabilitate Itself?

Tom Clements.
On one hand, the efforts of Clements's successor, Rick Raemisch, to carry on his legacy has drawn national attention and resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of mentally ill inmates held in solitary confinement. But some civil liberty activists and prison reformers question how much of the transition from "administrative segregation" to what is now termed "residential treatment programs" involves more of a shift in terminology than in actual conditions of confinement, while others note, with dismay, a rising number of parole violations and a suddenly increasing prison population, reversing a four-year decline.

To get a better idea of where the system seems to be heading, consider the fate of two radically different initiatives. Clements was a big supporter of what was once known as the Long-Term Offender Program, or LTOP, an innovative effort to help elderly parolees succeed back in society by pairing them with other former prisoners as mentors. The program got a glowing report on National Public Radio's All Things Considered recently, but volunteers say the program, which has the potential of saving the state millions in medical costs for geriatric prisoners, has been shelved by the new DOC leadership. "We're not getting any more referrals," says one LTOP mentor.

DOC spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson says the LTOP candidates are now being managed through the department's "presumptive parole" program, which "blends the bits and pieces of previous pilot programs into a comprehensive case planning strategy for these offenders."

Rick Raemisch.
At the same time, Raemisch has embarked on some new strategies for dealing with the system's most disruptive offenders. In an interview last week, he noted that the department has transferred an unspecified number of assaultive, noncompliant or otherwise troublesome offenders to other states. Such a transfer usually involves a quid pro quo; in other words, Colorado agrees to take other states' troublemakers in return. But Raemisch sees this as a win-win: "From what I've seen, they tend to act up the first month or so. Then they realize that they need to follow the rules to get back to where they can be close to their families again."

But is moving the hard-to-manage cases to another state a viable solution? Studies indicate that prisoners who are incarcerated far from family contact are more likely to reoffend, and some families of transferred inmates are already questioning the rationale for the moves. One mother of a Sterling prisoner who's headed for the East Coast insists that he was free of disciplinary reports and teaching GED classes when he learned of the transfer.

"They told one of the others who was being moved that it has something to do with Tom Clements's death," the woman reports. " Why? These men were not involved."

For more about the DOC's challenges and achievements over the past year, check out this week's feature.

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Losing LTOP is an enormous blow for those who are trying to successfully transition back to society after many years of incarceration. All studies show that the chances of committing another crime for those eligible for LTOP is 2%. Those who kill, out of passion, self-defense, or whatever, do not commit more violent crimes. That's simply a fact. (Studies back that up. Not wishful thinking on my part.) Yet society remains afraid of these prisoners--and that is understandable. They DID take a life. And, they DID serve their sentences. Yet, while we give lip service to them getting another chance, at obtaining parole, they are repeatedly denied.

Until LTOP. 

And now  LTOP is to be "blended" into other programs? LTOP had a sterling track record and so DOC dismantles it? Since DOC insists on "evidence-based" practices, why is the administration disregarding LTOP's success? It is my understanding that "presumptive parole" is only for non-violent offenders anyway. So where does that leave the old-timers? Will DOC change its requirements so that those formerly violent offenders who have served 20 or 30 years, who have paid their dues to society, can actually have a chance for freedom? Will these now middle-aged or elderly men be able to get the programs they need to be successfully re-integrated into society? 

Colorado cannot continue pouring money into DOC with such disheartening results. Last session the legislature allocated $8 million for re-entry programs. The money is there. In other nations, such as Denmark, your sentence is your punishment and from the very moment you are sentenced, corrections and staff are focused on one thing--getting you ready to successfully return to society. We must change our mindset here in Colorado, as well. Those prisoners who have served their sentences, who have kept their compact with the system and followed its rules, deserve a second chance. 

Not empty promises. And a prison cell for the rest of their lives.

RobertChase topcommenter

Gov. Hack presides over the largest prison population in Colorado's history and the DOC continues his policy of state-administered torture.  Justice would best be served by arming and training inmates to take on fascism.  Where is Evan Ebel's list?

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