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

Another day, another prison—this one a sprawling compound that rests within a mountainous basin where white-capped peaks loom brilliantly on the horizon. The collection of buildings, white and sun-bleached, looks like a more severe version of the Greek island Santorini, minus the cobalt blue domes—and the water. Ignore the razor wire and the multiple locking gates, and you might be surprised that this is the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, home to some 1,500 offenders.

Inside the punitive segregation wing, the cell doors are painted in cartoonish Easter-egg pastels, as if to splash perfume on something rotten. Raemisch sees the men through their sliver of a window staring back out at him or at the walls, or doing arm curls with a bedroll. He hears one yell through the walls, “Who the hell was that?” at his passing. Another responds: “I don’t know. Show-and-tell. The fucking zoo.” Raemisch shakes his head. 

Sometimes when Raemisch is put on the spot or is forced to participate in something that seems like a waste of time—such as icebreaking chitchat at meetings with people he already knows—he stands with hunched shoulders, his head bowed just slightly, one arm crossed over his abdomen to grip his other arm just below the elbow in a closed, brittle stance. It makes him appear less assuming than he is. But while touring prisons, Raemisch speaks louder, he stands straighter, and he moves neither too quickly nor too slowly, as if he knows exactly where he’s going and that he’ll get there at exactly the moment he intends to. 

At Buena Vista, Raemisch meets with offenders who roam freely and whose cell doors are propped open. One has a swastika tattooed on his forearm; another is so wizened and gray he looks ancient. Raemisch visits with them all. He enters a classroom of inmates studying for their GEDs and thanks them, says he’s proud of them for trying to better themselves. And then they thank him for the opportunity.

Cordial prison visits notwithstanding, Raemisch and other government officials face persistent threats. According to the memo filed in federal court, Ebel forced Nathan Leon to record a statement before he killed him, which, in part, said: “For 20 years we’ve been subject to your faddism [sic] not witness ours, you didn’t give two shits about us or our families and you ensured that we were locked behind a door, to disrespect us at every opportunity, so why should we care about you and yours. In short you treated us inhumanely, and so we simply seek to do the same.” After Clements’ murder, several state and DOC officials received SORT security similar to what Raemisch has. Correctional officers and other DOC employees were instructed to be more vigilant about their surroundings on and off the job. (One source told me, “It scared the shit out of me. Scared to death. How deep does this go? How do I know I wasn’t a target? I lock my door at night.”) 

Less than a month after Raemisch’s arrival, a paroled gang member went missing and was finally picked up just blocks from Raemisch’s office. Soon after, the department received a tip that someone had been contracted to kill him. Raemisch has said many times that gangs have too strong a foothold in our facilities. Even though violence has always been part of prison life, he and his staff are doing whatever they can to create a new reality. 

Raemisch believes he and his people have the answers. (He’s always quick to compliment his hard-working staff.) He studies research papers and understands the best practices. He’s even helped turn around one state DOC before. The recipe: Reform ad seg practices. Fortify treatment options for the mentally ill. Develop re-entry programs. Convince parole and corrections officers, through enhanced training and education, to curb their more aggressive instincts and egos and harness the more Zen-like social worker within. The research shows “time and time again” that recidivism rates will drop, prison populations will decline, and less crime will be committed in general. The state will be safer.

That doesn’t mean the plan is foolproof. “A liberal progressive type might say: ‘Inmate population is down. That’s a good thing.’ And everyone in the state is celebrating,” says a source who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “Then you go to these communities [where the prisons are located], and everyone’s thinking, ‘No, that’s not good news; that’s my job. That’s my local economy.’ ”

Raemisch says ad seg must change, and after a brief period of instability, he says, everyone will be better off. But tell that to Crowley County, which became a de facto desert in the 1970s by selling off its water rights and building prisons as economic drivers instead. Tell it to Cañon City, home to seven prisons. Sterling’s corrections facility is almost all it has. DOC employees throughout Colorado depend on the department remaining a vibrant economic ecosystem. Full prisons mean they can feed their kids. “Every time they release a prisoner, it makes them look less useful to the state,” the source says. “When beds aren’t full, there’s a heightened sense that prisons are closing, and they are huge economic boons to those counties.” 

And consider the corrections officers who will have to deal with more violent inmates in the general population if ad seg is abolished. Some of these people have seen their colleagues murdered. At Limon, one corrections officer had her throat slit, ear to ear, by an inmate. You can still see the scar. Corrections officers experience higher rates of adultery, divorce, alcoholism, and drug abuse than people in more conventional jobs. Their primary concern isn’t inmate rehabilitation; it’s personal survival. Between 2001 and 2004, a down time for Colorado’s economy, the DOC cut $56 million from its budget and eliminated more than 560 positions. The personnel numbers have never rebounded to their previous levels. “On staffing ratios, after working in prisons and visiting every prison in this state, I cannot say that [those working in ad seg units] are safe,” says DOC deputy executive director Kellie Wasko. “They’re not.” 

“When some corrections officers hear, ‘Don’t use ad seg,’ ” the anonymous source says, “they think, This is bullshit. They view guys like Rick and Tom as tourists.”