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.
Behind the electrified fences and swirling spools of razor wire, deep inside the belly of Limon Correctional Facility, a cement path leads to a chow hall. Inmates pack tables in twos, threes, and fours, some of them with faces covered in tattoos. Spider webs crawl up their necks; above the eye of one, the police code for murder, 187, is permanently inked. Upon noticing the numeral, Rick Raemisch, the Colorado Department of Corrections’ new executive director, always subtle in gesture and speech, leans over slightly and mentions there are some cultures in which a tattooed face is accepted, even celebrated. This isn’t one of them. “I see that,” he says, “and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to have a pretty hard time doing anything but working at the local meth factory.’ ” It echoes a phrase Raemisch utters often, albeit about only the most irredeemable offenders: There are some diseases for which there is no cure.
On this late fall day, Raemisch carries his bullish heft in a slick dark suit. His black shoes have been recently polished; his hair is trim and neat. Although most of his time is consumed by advocacy groups, legislators, and DOC employees, he tours at least one prison per week.
The isolation wing is next. The musk of a bunker lingers in the air. Behind tiny square windows set into the cell doors, the faces of men press against glass as they try to peer into the mostly empty corridor. Some yell, some bang things against the walls. Some pace. Some remain as still as the concrete that contains them, moving nothing but their eyes. “Those cells are brutal,” Raemisch says. “They’re chipped up and dented. They reek of misery. This is not supposed to be happening in America.”
On January 24, 2013, a clerical court error freed 28-year-old inmate Evan “Evil” Ebel four years early from the Sterling Correctional Facility. Bright but troubled, Ebel had a history of violent outbursts. His first arrest came at 12, and he went to prison at age 20. After he was deemed too threatening to be housed with the general prison population, he was moved to what in the corrections community is formally called administrative segregation, or “ad seg.”
Traditionally, ad seg life happens inside an impregnable box for 23 hours a day. These inmates spend their sole outlying hour in another enclosed room—it’s just large enough for jogging in tight, tiny circles—also alone, sometimes with fresh air, sometimes without. There’s a pull-up bar and a few windows through which guards can keep tabs. This was Ebel’s basic routine in the months leading up to his premature release.
After about two months on parole, Ebel removed his electronic ankle monitor and convinced an acquaintance to get him a gun. No one from law enforcement or the parole system checked in on him for five days. Before a warrant could be issued for his parole violation, Ebel, a member of the white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew, killed a young father named Nathan Leon, stole Leon’s pizza delivery uniform, and dumped his body in an open field near Golden, according to a memorandum filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Two days later, according to the court filings, Ebel made his way to the home of Tom Clements, the executive director of the DOC at the time.
Clements was a popular and staunch proponent of ad seg reform. In less than two years of running the DOC, he’d shut down the state’s brand-new Centennial Correctional Facility South, a prison that was designed exclusively for isolation, and he had cut the use of long-term solitary confinement in all Colorado prisons by 40 percent. But on March 19, 2013, Clements, who was watching TV with his wife, heard his doorbell ring and walked upstairs to answer the door. The visitor on the doorstep—although the memorandum filed in federal court concluded it was Ebel, multiple law enforcement agencies’ investigations are ongoing—leveled a gun at Clements’ chest and pulled the trigger. One moment the DOC chief was relaxing on the couch with his wife of nearly 30 years; the next he was bleeding to death in her arms.
Ebel fled to Texas, where he shot a sheriff’s deputy in the head, led police on a high-speed chase before crashing, and finally took a fatal bullet in the forehead. When Texas officers searched the scene of the shootout, they found a 9 mm handgun later identified as the weapon used in Clements’ murder. Investigators are exploring whether Ebel was the triggerman for a gang-orchestrated assassination. (Clements had also begun efforts to reduce gang influence in Colorado prisons.) Even though he ran the DOC with a progressive, humane bent, Clements was still a symbol, and as one source who had frequent contact with DOC personnel notes: “Symbols are targets.” Several individuals close to the investigation believe there’s a direct correlation between Clements’ reform efforts and his murder, and now it’s up to Rick Raemisch—another longtime reformer who read about all this from his home in Wisconsin and applied for the job anyway—to continue Clements’ crusade.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.