Call of Duty

Last fall, Rick Raemisch took charge of the Colorado Department of Corrections in the wake of his predecessor’s murder. Now it’s his job to reform our state’s beleaguered prison system.

March 2014

Behind the electrified fences and swirling spools of razor wire, deep inside the belly of Limon Correctional Facility, a cement path leads to a chow hall. Inmates pack tables in twos, threes, and fours, some of them with faces covered in tattoos. Spider webs crawl up their necks; above the eye of one, the police code for murder, 187, is permanently inked. Upon noticing the numeral, Rick Raemisch, the Colorado Department of Corrections’ new executive director, always subtle in gesture and speech, leans over slightly and mentions there are some cultures in which a tattooed face is accepted, even celebrated. This isn’t one of them. “I see that,” he says, “and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to have a pretty hard time doing anything but working at the local meth factory.’ ” It echoes a phrase Raemisch utters often, albeit about only the most irredeemable offenders: There are some diseases for which there is no cure.

On this late fall day, Raemisch carries his bullish heft in a slick dark suit. His black shoes have been recently polished; his hair is trim and neat. Although most of his time is consumed by advocacy groups, legislators, and DOC employees, he tours at least one prison per week. 

The isolation wing is next. The musk of a bunker lingers in the air. Behind tiny square windows set into the cell doors, the faces of men press against glass as they try to peer into the mostly empty corridor. Some yell, some bang things against the walls. Some pace. Some remain as still as the concrete that contains them, moving nothing but their eyes. “Those cells are brutal,” Raemisch says. “They’re chipped up and dented. They reek of misery. This is not supposed to be happening in America.”

On January 24, 2013, a clerical court error freed 28-year-old inmate Evan “Evil” Ebel four years early from the Sterling Correctional Facility. Bright but troubled, Ebel had a history of violent outbursts. His first arrest came at 12, and he went to prison at age 20. After he was deemed too threatening to be housed with the general prison population, he was moved to what in the corrections community is formally called administrative segregation, or “ad seg.” 

doc3Traditionally, ad seg life happens inside an impregnable box for 23 hours a day. These inmates spend their sole outlying hour in another enclosed room—it’s just large enough for jogging in tight, tiny circles—also alone, sometimes with fresh air, sometimes without. There’s a pull-up bar and a few windows through which guards can keep tabs. This was Ebel’s basic routine in the months leading up to his premature release.

After about two months on parole, Ebel removed his electronic ankle monitor and convinced an acquaintance to get him a gun. No one from law enforcement or the parole system checked in on him for five days. Before a warrant could be issued for his parole violation, Ebel, a member of the white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew, killed a young father named Nathan Leon, stole Leon’s pizza delivery uniform, and dumped his body in an open field near Golden, according to a memorandum filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Two days later, according to the court filings, Ebel made his way to the home of Tom Clements, the executive director of the DOC at the time. 

Clements was a popular and staunch proponent of ad seg reform. In less than two years of running the DOC, he’d shut down the state’s brand-new Centennial Correctional Facility South, a prison that was designed exclusively for isolation, and he had cut the use of long-term solitary confinement in all Colorado prisons by 40 percent. But on March 19, 2013, Clements, who was watching TV with his wife, heard his doorbell ring and walked upstairs to answer the door. The visitor on the doorstep—although the memorandum filed in federal court concluded it was Ebel, multiple law enforcement agencies’ investigations are ongoing—leveled a gun at Clements’ chest and pulled the trigger. One moment the DOC chief was relaxing on the couch with his wife of nearly 30 years; the next he was bleeding to death in her arms.

Ebel fled to Texas, where he shot a sheriff’s deputy in the head, led police on a high-speed chase before crashing, and finally took a fatal bullet in the forehead. When Texas officers searched the scene of the shootout, they found a 9 mm handgun later identified as the weapon used in Clements’ murder. Investigators are exploring whether Ebel was the triggerman for a gang-orchestrated assassination. (Clements had also begun efforts to reduce gang influence in Colorado prisons.) Even though he ran the DOC with a progressive, humane bent, Clements was still a symbol, and as one source who had frequent contact with DOC personnel notes: “Symbols are targets.” Several individuals close to the investigation believe there’s a direct correlation between Clements’ reform efforts and his murder, and now it’s up to Rick Raemisch—another longtime reformer who read about all this from his home in Wisconsin and applied for the job anyway—to continue Clements’ crusade.