Criminal Justice, Exclusives, Original Report

Dept of Corrections wants less solitary, more "leisure time" for death row inmates

An internal email from the Department of Corrections (DOC) shows the beginning formulations of a new policy to give death row inmates more autonomy inside the Sterling prison, including “leisure time” outside their cells.

The email, distributed to all DOC employees, is dated March 4, 2014, and says in part:

“Our offenders with death penalty sentences have had very good behavior without incidence.  That frames our thinking to change, folks. We are planning on introducing a policy that would allow the offenders with death penalty sentences to be removed from the Administrative Segregation setting and be able to come out of their cells, together, for 4 hours a day. This would allow them time in a day hall, their outdoor recreation time, shower time, and leisure time outside their cell and within their dayhalls.”

“…with this in mind, we decided that while they are out in the dayhalls and we are assessing how this will work, we would consider this dayhall a ‘NO STAFF ZONE’ at this time. So that means that when the offenders are out in their day hall for their out of cell time, staff will not enter into that dayhall for any reason while we asses how this will work for our organization.”

Whether the policy was actually implemented as proposed is unknown at this time because the DOC did not return a request for comment.  However, a DOC employee who does not work the death row cell block and who spoke to on a condition of anonymity, said, “Just the mere fact they would even put it out department-wide that they were looking to implement something like that had so many staff shaking their heads.”

Neither the Governor’s office nor the Hickenlooper campaign returned an email requesting comment.

The thrust of the policy is aimed at lessening the inmates’ time in Administrative Segregation, usually called Ad-Seg, but more commonly called solitary confinement. The issue of Ad-Seg was thrust into the political conversation after the murder of DOC Chief Tom Clements in March 2013. Evan Ebel had been paroled for only a few days when he killed Clements. Later it was learned that Ebel had spent extensive amounts of his prison time in Ad-Seg.

Dennis O’Conner, father of Colleen O’Conner who was killed by Nathan Dunlap in the 1993 Chuck E. Cheese murders, said he was disappointed to hear even of the potential for Dunlap to spend more time outside of Ad-Seg. “This just more of Hickenlooper’s stroll down liberal lane, as far as I’m concerned,” O’Conner said by phone. “[Dunlap] will be in the general population in no time, the way they’re going.”  O’Conner has been a vocal opponent of Governor Hickenlooper after the Governor’s decision to create a “temporary repreive” for Dunlap, who otherwise would’ve been executed by the state this past August.

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler expressed disappointment in the proposal and said the DOC should have at least solicited feedback from the public.  “It was the only way that you could guarantee that someone was in administrative segregation for the duration of their sentence — was if they were on death row.  And it feels like, based on that memo, [the Governor’s administration and DOC] are trying to chip away at that, and treat them more like those people who are in prison for burglary, or armed robbery, or dealing drugs.”

Brauchler went on to say that there are logical reasons besides just the punishment angle why Ad-Seg is chosen for death penalty inmates.  “The reason for Administrative Segregation is pretty obvious, which is, once you’ve told someone, ‘We’re going to leave you in prison until we have the ability to kill you, until we have the ability to take your life,’ they are a much bigger risk than others.”

Clements’ later sucessor as DOC Chief, Rick Raemisch, further propelled the Ad-Seg issue into the public debate after he volunteered to spend a night in solitary, and then wrote a New York Times article about the experience.

In late 2013, the DOC implemented policy which forbids placing inmates with severe mental illnesses into solitary confinement.

Death Row Ad-Seg Colorado DOC

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