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

On Raemisch’s Denver office desk, the only notable item is a book called Beating the Crack Pipe, a gift from the author, a rehabilitated former offender. It’s October 17, and Raemisch has been sick for weeks. He looks exhausted. Everyone at the DOC had no choice but to work through their collective grief over Clements’ assassination while still doing their jobs, and every subsequent news story about the department’s dysfunction has stung. In addition to the ongoing media criticism, Raemisch’s office recently fielded a phone call about a gangster who singled out Raemisch as a target—but he’s experienced such threats before. 

Raemisch has been an undercover narcotics cop, a tax appeals commissioner, a county sheriff, an assistant district and U.S. attorney, and the DOC secretary in Wisconsin. Each position carried risks. Raemisch’s world is Die Hard meets Groundhog Day, and to him, routine has rendered the most visceral events bland. Even his wife has gotten used to it. He’s had to show her pictures of people who might be threats, and she’s grown accustomed to carefully scanning their neighborhood before leaving the house. 

There was the time a member of the Posse Comitatus—an anti-government cult—ranted about “killing them all,” including Raemisch. There was the Cuban exile turned coke dealer who found Raemisch’s number and started calling at 2 a.m., whispering over the phone line, “I’m going to kill you.” Another drug dealer tried to shoot him with a .32. The worst incident was when, as an undercover agent, Raemisch wound up with a broken back after a man tried to filet him with a fishing knife. The story starts with an informant, a drug deal in a dodgy bar, and a bouncer getting stabbed 12 times. It ends with Raemisch striking the attacker in the head with his gun, but not before suffering a wedged spine from fighting off the attacker’s friends. The injury kept him out for months. “Every morning I feel that one,” he says with a grin that transforms his typical poker face into something altogether new and bright—maybe even optimistic. His stories aren’t what you’d expect to hear from a 60-year-old with gray-blond hair, glasses, and bookish smarts, but Raemisch tells them all in his soft but authoritative voice. To him, it’s all part of the job.

One evening this past fall, Raemisch visits the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district. It’s a packed house for the ACLU’s screening of Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Story of Sam Mandez. Mandez was sentenced to life without parole for murder (though some argue the evidence against him is thin) and wound up in solitary for 16 years for petty offenses. Now, incarcerated in Centennial, he hears voices. He has paranoid, delusional ideas about who he is. One day he’s a boxing champion fighting in Madison Square Garden; the next he’s the primary architect of Denver International Airport. He throws his feces or smears them on his food tray. In September 2010, he attempted to hang himself in his cell. 

This is what can happen to people in ad seg. During the post-screening Q-and-A session, ACLU investigators and lawyers decry the DOC as an organization that perpetuates these practices out of laziness and a “rock pile” mentality, even though the prodigiously litigious ACLU didn’t file a single lawsuit against the Colorado DOC during Tom Clements’ tenure. Clements was an ally to the advocates of victims and inmates alike. Some consider him the first “corrections professional” the DOC ever had in the executive director position.

Raemisch is still unknown and, as such, is generally treated with suspicion. Ask advocacy groups or ACLU lawyers what they think of Raemisch, and they’re likely to talk about Clements instead. But when asked why he believes criminals can be rehabilitated, Raemisch thinks quietly for a moment and then says, “Look within yourself. Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? I know I’m not. I’ve seen people change too many times to think it’s hopeless.” Some advocates don’t yet realize that, like Clements, Raemisch subscribes to best practices and research-supported policies, or that he also is, in fact, one of the most respected corrections professionals in the nation. His experience with rehabilitation over punishment dates back to his years as a sheriff in Dane County, Wisconsin, where he began and expanded education, treatment, and public service programs in the county jails. Roxane White, Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, says that when her office began the search for Clements’ replacement, corrections directors across the country recommended Raemisch with some variation of, “If you can get this guy, this is who you need and want.” Noting the personal sacrifice Raemisch has made, White says, “I think it took a great deal of courage to come here. He felt like [Clements’ death] was a call to service.”

Another thing the advocacy groups are beginning to realize is that Raemisch and his executive team agree that something needs to be done about the mentally ill. “While the DOC has made a very important policy move [in seeking to reform ad seg], we know, based on our recent visits, that there are severely mentally ill prisoners who are still in long-term solitary confinement,” says ACLU of Colorado staff attorney Rebecca Wallace. “The DOC’s position now is they don’t want to put inmates with major mental illnesses in ad seg, and we see that Mr. Raemisch is a real potential partner for change.”

Raemisch understands the advocates’ impatience, and he can already point to signs of progress. At a joint judiciary hearing this past December, he told legislators the Colorado DOC will no longer be placing the severely mentally ill in solitary confinement for extended periods, and they’re beginning to review all ad seg inmates on a case-by-case basis. In just a year, Raemisch announced, the number of ad seg inmates with major mental illnesses had been reduced from 144 to eight. (Three weeks after the hearing, the number dropped to one and has since fluctuated slightly.)

After the Mandez screening, Raemisch stands outside under the glow of a streetlight in the otherwise inky darkness, talking to two people about the film. A few feet away, his security detail for the night whispers, “I just wish people would give the guy a break. Everywhere we go they’re giving him shit. Give the guy a chance.”