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Colorado legislature advances restrictions on use of prison solitary

Lisa Clements, the widow of chief executive of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, is supported by her daughters Sara (L)
Lisa Clements, the widow of chief executive of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, is supported by her daughters Sara (L)

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado lawmakers approved legislation on Monday that limits the use of solitary confinement for prison inmates, a year after the state's corrections chief was killed by a parolee who spent the bulk of his sentence in solitary.

The bipartisan measure, passed by a 63-2 vote in the state House of Representatives, would require that the case of any prisoner held in isolation be reviewed every 90 days.

The measure would also establish a gradual step-down process for inmates held in solitary, or administrative segregation, before their release.

The proposal, which has already cleared the state Senate, will now go to Governor John Hickenlooper, who is expected to sign the bill into law.

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement praising lawmakers for "banning the cruel, costly, and unlawful practice of warehousing prisoners with serious mental illness in long-term solitary confinement."

Reforming solitary confinement is gathering momentum across the United States. In February, to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, prison officials in New York agreed to stop isolating pregnant, mentally ill and juvenile inmates.

Last year, inmates in California went on a hunger strike to protest its use, prompting state lawmakers to review the practice.

Colorado is particularly sensitive to the issue. The state's head of corrections, Tom Clements, was gunned down at his home in March 2013. Clements, who was known as a prison reformer, was committed to revamping the use of solitary confinement and the treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Federal prosecutors said the man who killed Clements was Evan Ebel, a member of a white supremacist prison gang who was released straight to the streets from solitary, where he was held for most of his 8-year sentence because of disciplinary infractions.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times in February, Clement's successor, Rick Raemisch, called for the nationwide reform of prison isolation practices.

"Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer it was not for the better," Raemisch said of Ebel.

Raemisch called for reforms after he spent 20 hours in a solitary cell, an experience he said made him "paranoid and twitchy."

"If we can't eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use," he wrote.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)

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