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 November 11, 2013, Raemisch sits at the head of a wooden table in a conference room at the Beaver Run Inn in Breckenridge. (The high-end resort provided a discounted “state rate” for the gathering.) Black leather chairs, floral patterned carpet, and the blotchy yellow and off-white painted walls give the impression of antiquity. Dreamy, Kinkade-like paintings of nature scenes adorn the walls. Breck’s snowy slopes dominate the view outside the windows. 

The DOC’s executive staff has retreated here to lick its wounds from eight months of bad press and to plot a better future. Raemisch has made his mission clear to the executive team: Ad seg has to evolve. Prison gangs must be disrupted. Re-entry programs will be kick-started. The parole system needs an overhaul. He’s told them many times, If wardens aren’t on board with this, they’re left at the station. If you’re not on board with this, you’re left at the station. The changes must begin immediately, and Raemisch knows this. “I don’t have much time to convince people I’m right,” he says. 

The executive team not only agrees, but they also seem to genuinely believe in him. The two-day retreat produces plans for a new re-entry program for upcoming parolees. The warden at the Centennial facility offers 16 beds in a worker pod to get the mentally ill out of ad seg and into treatment. Freemont has a transition unit that gradually increases the number of people an ad seg inmate can be around. In the past three years, the number of inmates released directly from ad seg to the streets dipped from 238 to 218 to 109. As of press time, the number was 35 (with the fiscal year ending in June).

Officials will begin to reconfigure the treatment programming for the severely mentally ill at San Carlos and Centennial so it aligns better with suggestions from psychologists with expertise in the field. Raemisch will visit the parole offices one by one to hear their concerns and relay the new vision. Gone are the days of parole’s “Trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em” ethos. “I don’t need you to be tougher,” Raemisch is fond of saying. “I need you to be smarter”—that is, by engaging the parolees more like social workers would. In the past, there were no formal requirements for responding to electronic ankle monitor tamper alerts; now the mandate is two hours. There’s a newly dedicated team for nights and weekends, and the DOC has created a fugitive apprehension unit, a 10-member squad that has helped arrest nearly 200 parole absconders since its inception. Word has spread, and fewer parolees are trying to escape. 

Halfway through the second day, everyone is amped. It’s as if they finally see tangible evidence that they really might be able to turn this thing around.

Suddenly Wasko returns from a break. “You need to brace yourselves,” she says. “7News is about to drop a story. You need to be prepared. This could get ugly.” The report was that a sex offender had been released without receiving treatment. But whoever leaked the story fed 7News incomplete information. The inmate’s offense happened while he was in prison, so he was never convicted of a sex offense in court. “You know what would happen if everyone we caught masturbating in prison was classified as a sex offender?” someone asks, with the rhetorical implication that it would be all of them. No matter; the damage is done. The officials start the familiar ritual of placing frenetic phone calls and trying to stay ahead of yet another critical story.

Raemisch takes a call outside, walks back in, and sits down. He’s mostly quiet, listening and observing as the chaos erupts around him. But he’s got a slight grin that suggests that even when things seem their worst, the challenges mounting yet again, he’s at home in his new role as the DOC’s executive director. This is his chance to honor Clements by continuing his predecessor’s dedication to reshaping and reforming the Colorado prison system. Raemisch sees it as his calling—and his duty.