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Reports of riots, melees and assaults at Spring Creek Youth Services Center surfaced last summer, prompting questions about what isn't working inside the co-ed youth detention facility at 3190 E. Las Vegas St. and how to fix it.
Now, the use of restraint and seclusion (more commonly known as solitary confinement) is the subject of last-minute legislation at the state Capitol that would put heavy restrictions, reporting requirements and oversight on state-run juvenile detention centers.
Sponsor Rep. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs admits, "Quite frankly, some of these kids are pretty difficult to deal with. But what happens is untrained staff finds it's a heck of a lot easier to throw a kid into a small cell than to try to deal with the underlying issue."
Lee, an attorney with a background in criminal law and restorative justice, says he's hardly the first to point out that isolation does more harm than good. "The side effects of solitary confinement are demonstrably agreed upon in the literature to cause anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts," he says, adding that many incarcerated youths already suffer from mental illness, often stemming from childhood abuse.
A state law passed in 1999 already bans youth solitary confinement. But the practice is evidently still used at state-run facilities like Spring Creek.
In 2014, the ACLU, Colorado Juvenile Defender Center and Disability Law Colorado teamed up to reveal that incarcerated youths in Colorado were forced into seclusion for days, weeks and, in one instance, more than a month as punishment. The Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) then recommitted to following the law.
But in October 2015, the Gazette found 299 instances in which juveniles had been placed in solitary confinement when there was no emergency; 123 of those were at Spring Creek. (An "emergency" is a staff determination that an inmate poses "serious, probable and imminent threat of bodily harm to self or others," as defined in DYC's policy.)
Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado, feels a new law is the only way to keep the DYC accountable after it proved itself untrustworthy.
"We need to have these guardrails in place," she says, adding it's "unfortunate" that the DYC doesn't follow the lead of its adult counterpart, the Department of Corrections. DOC Director Rick Raemisch committed to reform after his predecessor, Tom Clements, was murdered on his doorstep in 2013 by a detainee freshly released from solitary confinement.
Raemisch, upon assuming his DOC post, did a voluntary stint in solitary to experience the effects first-hand. "Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better," he wrote in a widely publicized op-ed. "When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform."
Nobody from the Colorado Department of Human Services (which oversees youth corrections) will talk on the record, but spokesman Lee Rasizer emailed the Indy a statement, saying although "CDHS shares the philosophy of bill proponents that the use of seclusion in youth corrections should be limited and tightly controlled," the department opposes Lee's bill.
Current policies are working, according to the statement, as evidenced by the reduction in average seclusion times from nearly 14 hours in 2014 to just over an hour in March of this year.
CDHS also disputes that the bill merely codifies existing policy. "It is written with the intention of forcing prescriptive practice into law without funding for the staff necessary to ensure safety in our facilities," the statement continues.
Lee says making the law is his job and following the law is theirs: "We have to have transparency in these institutions. Asking for better record-keeping and more oversight is not an onerous requirement."
HB1328 passed narrowly out of the state House Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote on April 21. It's now headed to the Appropriations Committee, then to the floor for two votes before it moves to the Senate side where it's sponsorless as of press time.