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Colorado Offers Mentally Ill Prisoners More Humane Treatment

Colorado ends solitary confinement for severely mentally ill prisoners.


They call it “ad seg” or “administrative segregation,” but when you decipher this term it becomes much more ominous. Administrative segregation refers to solitary confinement, a state where mentally ill prisoners can find themselves alone in a cell for 23 hours of every day with nothing but their symptoms to keep them company.


Under the watchful eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the State of Colorado is moving to end solitary confinement for severely mentally ill patients. A memo distributed among Colorado prison wardens earlier this month says that the practice must cease by the end of this year.


Numbers have already been dropping in the past three months. In September, the state had 40 cases of mentally ill prisoners in solitary. By November, these number had fallen to fewer than 30, and in early December just eight such prisoners remained in solitary confinement.


The ACLU of Colorado, which has long been calling for an end to administrative segregation for seriously mentally ill patients, is delighted with the new policy. “This is an enormous foundational step toward getting serious mentally ill prisoners out of solitary confinement and into treatment,” said Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney at ACLU Colorado.


Putting an end to solitary confinement is just the beginning of improving conditions for seriously mentally ill prisoners. In Colorado, many such prisoners are being redirected into a residential treatment program. Currently, the state’s 240-bed program houses about 215 people.


Yet, The Denver Post reports that this residential program “is too much like solitary confinement.” Wallace gave the example of one prisoner moved into the residential program who spent only an average of 12 minutes per week in individual therapy during the first six months of treatment.


Other organizations besides the ACLU have also long called for more humane treatment for mentally ill prisoners as well as for, in general, the decriminalization of mental illness.


What You Can Do


Support nonprofit advocacy organizations in the United States working to end solitary confinement for the mentally ill: