State lawmakers seek to restrict solitary confinement in Colorado’s largest jails for mentally ill inmates

Bill would also restrict the practice for those who are pregnant, under 18, or who have an intellectual or developmental disability

By Moe Clark

Meghan Baker, a staff attorney for the advocacy organization Disability Law Colorado, asked state lawmakers during a bill hearing on Tuesday to imagine what it would be like to spend 23 hours a day alone in a jail cell.

“You can’t see a TV or a clock, you have very little property in your cell and very little to do, so you spend your time sleeping, counting the cinder block in the wall or talking to yourself,” she told lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee. “Now imagine that you have a serious mental illness.” 

Though the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days was formally banned in 2017 in Colorado state prisons, the practice of holding inmates in isolation for more than 22 hours per day remains common in the state’s city and county jails. 

Lawmakers are hoping to change that this year for certain jail inmates. House Bill 21-1211 would significantly restrict the use of solitary confinement for those with mental health diagnoses or neurocognitive impairments, juveniles, people who are pregnant or in the postpartum period, or people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

“Many of the people who are in jail, who are in restrictive housing, have been convicted of no crime and they’re awaiting trial,” said state Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat who introduced the bill to lawmakers on April 6 at the Capitol. “Once you place somebody in restrictive housing who has a serious mental illness, they often get worse.” 

After a six-hour hearing, the bill got the green light on a party-line vote from the 11-member House Judiciary Committee. The legislation will now be debated in the House.

‘It isn’t a fix for our entire mental health care and judicial system, but it is humane’

The bill also attempts to set statewide standards for documenting when and why the practice is used by deputies and includes a provision that jail staff must notify a family member, legal guardian or legal representative within 12 hours of a person being placed in solitary confinement.

The legislation is a baby step toward restricting the practice for all inmates in jail settings. Currently, the bill would only affect Colorado jails that have 400 or more beds, which would include 12 counties. Those counties include Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Pueblo, Teller and Weld counties, according to the state’s jail data dashboard.

Judy Amabile

Colorado State Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat. (Courtesy of Judy Amabile campaign)

“It isn’t a fix for our entire mental health care and judicial system, but it is humane,” Amabile said. “It’s more humane than what we’re doing now, and it is a moral issue, as well as a legal issue about how we choose to treat the people who are in our care.”

House Bill 21-1211 would also require:

  • That someone not be held in isolation for more than 15 consecutive days without a court order
  • Staff to screen inmates for current and past illnesses, history of suicidal ideation, drug use, and neurocognitive issues such as traumatic brain injuries or dementia
  • Jails to record demographic information for people held in isolation as well as mental health information and publish it quarterly on the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s website
  • Jail staff to check on people in solitary confinement every 15 minutes
  • Medical staff to conduct assessments of those in solitary confinement 24 hours 
  • Jail staff to supply inmates with basic hygiene necessities and allow them to shower three times a week 
  • Jail staff allow inmates in solitary confinement to receive and write letters; participate in visitation; access legal materials and books; have at least one hour of outdoor exercise five days a week outside the cell; use telephone privileges; and access other jail programs

The number of people held in isolation throughout the state is unclear. There are no statewide standards for that information or publicly available data. 

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, who testified against the bill on Tuesday, estimated that 10% of the people in his jail are currently in solitary confinement. The medium-size jail has a bed capacity of about 500 people, but it currently houses around 300 due to pandemic-related depopulation efforts.

In response to a lawmaker’s question, Pelle explained that the reason a person would be put into solitary confinement could be disciplinary, if the person is perceived to be a danger to themselves or others, or if they are at risk of being victimized by other inmates in the facility. 

State Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was left speechless after asking Pelle how many people in his jail have a documented mental health diagnosis.

Rep. Kerry Tipper

State Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood.

At the end of the bill hearing, state Rep. Mike Weissman, who is chair of the judiciary committee, thanked the bill sponsor for tackling this issue but highlighted how it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

“I think that you have 11 votes to zero for the proposition that our jails shouldn’t be our mental health facilities in the state, but they find themselves in that place,” Weissman said. “It’s the work of this committee and other committees to try to start to unwind that and that will take the work of more than one bill in more than one year.”

‘Too much too soon’

The main concerns voiced during the bill’s first hearing — primarily from law enforcement officers and jail staff members — related to not having enough staff or financial resources to implement the statewide standards that would require jails to let people out of solitary confinement for at least two hours a day and to be checked on more frequently if they have a mental health diagnosis.

“I only have a psychiatrist for four hours a week,” said Melanie Dreiling, a registered nurse who works in the Boulder County jail, during her testimony against the bill. “I have a nurse practitioner for 12 hours a week.

“We do have 24 hour nursing, but if nurses were required to be checking on every patient, every 15 minutes and documenting what we’re seeing with those patients, we would not be able to provide the care that we provide to all of our patients,” she said in a response to a lawmaker’s question. 

Janet Huffor, chief of staff at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and legislative liaison, voiced similar concerns. She said the El Paso facility doesn’t have the necessary staff to accommodate the changes in the bill because between 70% and 80% of the people in their jail have mental health conditions.

Pelle said while he appreciates the bill for what it is attempting to do, he hopes the lawmakers pump the brakes.

“Many sheriffs believe that it’s time to make that change,” he said. “And this bill could be the beginning of a discussion around how to implement statewide standards, or (how) to follow American Correctional Association recommendations. It’s just, this is too much too soon, without any structure or without any funding in order to implement.”

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