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


Although people often look to him for answers, Rick Raemisch usually prefers to listen. In meetings he’ll sit quietly with his hands clasped, staring straight ahead or at the table in front of him. When he does talk, it’s in measured but unmistakably authoritative tones. 

It’s always clear where Raemisch stands, and when he voices an opinion it often neutralizes any lingering tension between his colleagues. So when he appeared before the joint judiciary committee at the Capitol building in September 2013—after a review and various media investigations raised questions about systematic inadequacy within the DOC—and he said things like, “If someone isn’t on the train, you sometimes have to leave them at the station,” or, “These reviews forced us to look in the mirror, and we didn’t like what we saw,” everyone seemed to relax. 

Raemisch candidly admits his department’s shortcomings: Yes, there is a hostile culture within certain factions. There are those who think they work for the Department of Punishment rather than the Department of Corrections. Prisons overuse ad seg, which only causes more problems. Violence is accepted as an unavoidable reality. Every week there’s an incidents report filled with assaults. Gangs have too strong a foothold in Colorado’s prisons, and it’s time to disrupt their power.

Then there’s the parole system. The five-day span it took anyone to check on Evan Ebel after he removed his ankle monitor wasn’t an isolated miscue. At the time, parole officials were receiving tens of thousands of alerts every month, and they weren’t able to respond to them all. That’s changing, Raemisch says. They’re streamlining the process so officers will be required to respond within two hours of an alert. Parole needs to abandon its historical “Trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em” tag line, because Raemisch’s DOC will focus on rehabilitation. 

As the secretary of the Wisconsin DOC, Raemisch was known as a disciplined professional with a big heart. He’s “a progressive who also believes in accountability,” says Margaret Carpenter, the Wisconsin DOC’s education director, who adds that Raemisch’s sole goal “is to help [offenders] rehabilitate and…make them better people on their re-entry to society.” Inmates who return to the community need education, skills, and incentives. They need robust re-entry programming and a support system, something considerably more productive than just being dropped off somewhere and told “good luck” when they’re paroled. “How can we expect people who haven’t made a decision for themselves in years to suddenly be these great independent thinkers?” Raemisch asks.

Although he says he hates it, Raemisch often carries a Glock 27 with a nine-round magazine strapped to his belt, hidden beneath his suit jacket. Additionally, he’s accompanied, 24/7, by a security detail comprised of officers from the DOC’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT). Half the time they’re invisible, but they’re always around. They’re at his house. They drive him to meetings. When he has a rare day off, they tag along anyway. With typical understatement, Raemisch says, “[The security] is not great for cementing relationships, that’s for sure.” 

At 60 years old, at the tail end of an already lengthy career, Raemisch knows he should be relaxing with a fishing pole and a beer, “watching a river flow by.” He should be spending more time with his family. He’d like to go on wilderness outings with his friends or replenish the six cords of wood he’s burned every winter in his Wisconsin fireplace. He speaks wistfully about home improvement projects he wishes he had more time to complete. But when he heard about Clements dying in his wife’s embrace and then about the many problems plaguing the Colorado DOC, he says he thought about what that meant to the people of Colorado—and felt compelled to try and help. 

In his Denver office one October morning, three months into his new role, Raemisch is holstering his Glock and preparing to meet a former prison gang member. “That’s what’s got security all amped up,” he says. But once inside the meeting, the safety concerns disappear. Raemisch listens as the man, dressed in a gray suit with a wide, sequined tie, says he’s reformed and doing “God’s work” now. He’s here with another former inmate, also rehabilitated, on behalf of a prison advocacy group. These organizations want many things: for inmates to have better treatment, healthier food, education programming, more time with their families, counseling, jobs training, you name it. They want inmates’ lives to be better. They want rehabilitation. These two men want to speak in institutions to let offenders know how to make it on the outside. They say inmates need to hear their message, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Parolees,” or they’ll be bound for failure. Raemisch agrees: “Guys like you keep us going.”

That evening, Raemisch attends an entirely different kind of meeting, this one for victims. In a conference room at a Denver police station are people who’ve been assaulted, raped, or robbed, or whose loved ones have experienced unimaginable traumas. They aren’t terribly concerned about improving the day-to-day lives of inmates; they talk instead about their own suffering. The meeting is quiet but full of emotion. A woman stands up near the front and announces, with fear rising in her voice, “My offender cut my throat. He’s getting out in a week.” She wants to know: “What if he tracks me down? Where can I get a gun?” 

Raemisch sits in the back, listening. His job is to respond to the agendas of all the different stakeholders and to do it in a way that not only ensures public safety, but also addresses the emotional needs of victims—while never forgetting his moral obligation to help turn offenders into productive members of society. And he’s expected to do it all without angering anyone.