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

With a budget of more than $751 million, the Colorado Department of Corrections is responsible for transporting, housing, feeding, educating, medicating, supervising, protecting, and rehabilitating the individuals who have violated our laws. Some 20,400 offenders populate its 20 state-run correctional facilities. There are more than 6,000 DOC employees, including corrections officers, wardens, and associate wardens; the victims services unit; medical staff; mental health care providers; educators; and the parole division, which is responsible for around 700 new parolees every month. There’s the fugitive apprehension unit, charged with tracking down and arresting those who escape or abscond from parole. There are community corrections programs that include halfway houses and treatment programs. The executive team, of which Rick Raemisch is now the head, determines and manages departmental policy and best practices. 

The sheer heft of the corrections system means there can be reams of red tape and plenty of cracks through which offenders can fall. This is complicated by the fact that most people follow one of two divergent corrections philosophies: the belief in rehabilitation, and the belief that punishment is all offenders will ever deserve.

What many people cling to, especially victims and their families, is the conviction that some criminals are beyond salvation, divine or otherwise. Rick Raemisch says he believes the exact opposite: that most people, no matter their histories, can and do change. He has to believe this because he knows about 97 percent of those who enter prison will one day return to our communities and become our neighbors and acquaintances. Raemisch has to believe in the possibility of their reclamation because it’s his job to fix them before they’re out. 

The tales of inmates who have spent years in ad seg are often full of pain, self-destruction, madness, violence, and tragedy. Take Jason Guerrero, aka “the Exorcist,” who shot a man to death six months after his release from ad seg. Raymond Sandoval, after three years in solitary, stabbed his ex-girlfriend with a screwdriver and strangled her. Dexter Lewis, released on mandatory parole after an unspecified time in solitary, is one of three to stand trial for the Fero’s Bar & Grill slayings on South Colorado Boulevard, one of the grisliest local murder scenes in recent memory. Four victims were stabbed a total of at least 60 times, and the bar owner, Young Suk Fero, had her throat slit. Lewis and his accomplices then allegedly poured gasoline throughout the bar and set a fire. Five people, butchered and burned, all so the assailants could make off with $170.   

There are also inmates in ad seg who are doing horrific things to themselves. Some repeatedly smash their faces against the walls. Others cut themselves with razors or swallow pens, paper, or cables and end up needing surgical intervention. “That’s what we’re dealing with when we talk about the severely mentally ill in the justice system,” Raemisch says. “We don’t want them here. I guarantee that if there were a place to put them, we’d have a long line for a bus to get them there. But we’re it.” 

In the 1960s and ’70s there was a public outcry over the treatment of patients in mental institutions. The federal government, trying to save money and avoid more public relations debacles, shuttered them. As of 1955, the U.S. population was 165 million and there were 559,000 people in mental hospitals, mental asylums, and similar institutions. In 1963, the deinstitutionalization process began; by 2000, with the national population up to 280 million, there were only 54,000 patients in mental hospitals. The decline of these facilities has also changed the face—if not the mission—of correctional facilities. “Every state in the nation calls its prison system the largest mental health institution in the state,” Raemisch says, “and that’s what I’m calling ours.” 

Housing mentally ill inmates in ad seg has been yet another stain on our prisons. The ACLU wants to end the practice, citing it as blatantly unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Articles critical of ad seg have been published in the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, and the Denver Post. In a series of pieces that followed Clements’ assassination, the Denver Post reported that just over 100 offenders in Colorado went straight from ad seg to the streets in the previous year (down about 50 percent from the prior year’s numbers), and around half of the 33 Colorado parolees who’ve been charged with murder since 2002 had spent time in solitary confinement. After they were released, the overstrained, understaffed parole system gave them too much freedom. “When you have a [corrections] system that’s so bloated and big, it just can’t do the job it was intended to do well,” says Christie Donner, the executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “It’s obese. And after a while, your knees hurt.”

Back at Limon Correctional, Raemisch exits the punitive segregation wing—leaving the inmates’ faces pressed against the glass—and walks back along the cement path under a bright, open sky, through the locked gates and the metal detector and the outer fences and finally into the rest of the world. “We’re destroying people, putting them in there,” Raemisch says. “You can’t ever be the same after that.”