A former Dane County Sheriff who later went on to head the department of corrections in Colorado is speaking out for prison reform.
Rick Raemisch, who spent five terms as the Dane County Sheriff, spoke to the Waunakee Rotary Club on Oct. 24 about the need for more humanized prisons and less solitary confinement – not so much in sympathy for the prisoners, but for public protection, he said, noting that eventually, these prisoners are released.
Raemisch became executive director of Colorado’s correctional system after his predecessor, Tom Clements, was assassinated by an inmate who was sentenced to solitary confinement.
In a talk titled Rethinking Corrections in the United States, Raemisch pointed out that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country.
He has visited both the Swedish and German prison systems, and said in Sweden, where the population is 10.3 million, fewer than 5,000 people are incarcerated.
When he was director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, he oversaw 20,000 inmates. Colorado’s overall population is about 5.2 million, Raemisch said.
In the Colorado prison system, like others throughout the U.S., 77 percent of all inmates are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both, according to Raemisch. About 30 percent have mental health issues, and of those, 12 percent are seriously mentally ill, he said.
“Every state prison system is the largest mental health institution in their state. The myth that we deinstitutionalized mental health institutions is a myth,” Raemisch said.
Raemisch said the second half of the equation for closing mental health institutions in the 1960s – funding local governments to offer treatment – was never fulfilled.
The size of U.S. prisons also contrasts with those in other countries. Raemisch said in most European prisons, the maximum capacity is 500 offenders. The largest prison in Colorado has 2,500 inmates.
“I would think, what the hell can I do with 2,500 inmates because I knew if I had 2,500 nuns under one roof, they were going to start punching each other out. It’s just too many people,” Raemisch said.
The difference between U.S. prisons and those in Europe is that Europe tends to humanize offenders, according to Raemisch. A good example can be seen in the architecture, which in the U.S. tends to be cement and steel structures.
“My belief is that virtually every prison in the United States, built the way it was, manufactures violence,” Raemisch said.
Another example of the dehumanizing effect is the placement of the toilet under the sink in the cells.
Supermax prisons confine prisoners to cells 23 hours per day, five days a week and 48 hours on weekends, Raemisch noted.
“You’re locked in a cell the size of parking space 23 hours a day. It can be for decades,” Raemisch said.
One prisoner who held the record for the longest time in a Supermax prison – 44 years of solitary confinement – could no longer focus his vision any distance after being in such small quarters.
Raemisch said he spoke with a psychiatrist who spent his career studying the effects of solitary confinement, interviewing prisoners shortly after they entered and then again after 10 years.
“He said ‘I have only seen what they’re feeling, their degree in loneliness, in one other type of people.’ When I asked who, he said terminally-ill cancer patients,” Raemisch said.
Raemisch described the sounds the prisoners hear in Supermaxes and the smell because many of the prisoners smear their feces on the walls.
He learned this from experience.
When he was hired to reform the overuse of segregation in Colorado, he spent three shifts as an inmate in solitary confinement.
“I was doing it for an internal newsletter,” he said.
Eventually, Raemisch wrote an opinion piece published in the New York Times that became sought by newspapers across the United States.
“My world blew up, and in a good way,” Raemisch said.
Raemisch noted that 97 percent of people in prisons are released into the community.
While Raemisch said he has little sympathy for those who do bad things to people, he speaks out for prison reform in an effort to make communities safer.
“When you lock someone up for that time, without giving them any programming, without giving them anything, they’re coming out mad as hell, and someone is going to get hurt and they’re coming back in,” Raemisch said.
Raemisch made reforms in the Colorado prisons that humanized them by adding murals, furniture and incentives rather than punishments.
Two prisons were dedicated to those with mental health issues. Since those reforms, incidents have dropped by 80 percent. Rather than having solitary confinement rooms, de-escalation rooms took the place of solitary cells. The rooms had murals, comfortable chairs and blackboards, were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and were never locked.
Raemisch said when he was in Wisconsin, with reforms enacted, the prison population was dropping and at the same time the crime rate was for the first time since the 1800s.
Prison should be for those who commit violent crimes, Raemisch said.
Raemisch brought up the Bernie Madoff case. Madoff went to prison after leading a Ponzi scheme that bankrupted a number of people. But he could have learned more if he had been ordered to volunteer at homeless shelters.
“Prisons are for those that commit violent acts. All the rest, we’ve got to figure something else out,” Raemisch said.
Today in Colorado, the maximum time a prisoner spends in segregation is 15 days. One Supermax is empty and the other has been repurposed.
“Employers were going into that prison to hire those who had previously been in solitary confinement. That’s what you want,” Raemisch said.