jailOn old friend from my days in the criminal justice trenches of Madison, Wisconsin, served as county sheriff for a number of years. He began his criminal justice career as a deputy, then graduated from the University of Wisconsin law school. He went on to serve as a prosecutor and then head of prisons in Wisconsin. He now serves as head of prisons in Colorado.

Rick Raemisch was appointed to his present position by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.  He was asked to reform the practice of segregation in the Colorado system. Rick replaced Tom Clements, who was tragically assassinated in his home by a former inmate. It will not be an easy job.

This week, Rick wrote an article in The New York Times appropriately titled “Driving Prisoners Crazy Won’t Make the Public Safer” (Feb. 21, 2014). In this excellent article he talks about his experience of 20 hours in one of his prison’s many segregation cells. He said that he needed to do this if he was to be able to carry out the expectations Gov. Hickenlooper had of him when he was appointed:

“Most states now agree that solitary confinement is overused… Gov. John Hickenlooper charged me with three goals: 

(1) limiting or eliminating the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates;

(2) addressing the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods; and 

(3) reducing the number of offenders released directly from solitary back into their communities.

If I was going to accomplish these, I needed a better sense of what solitary confinement was like, and what it did to the prisoners who were housed there, sometimes for years.”

[To read his entire article, CLICK HERE.]

When I read the article, I was reminded of the major prison-related events in my life. My first was as a teen-aged Marine guard assigned to the brig in the ship on which I was serving. In my new book, I wrote this about my experience as a jailer. Even as a teenager, I sensed its dangers:

“When I was assigned as a brig guard on the U.S.S. Boxer. I was 19 at the time. I soon experienced the same pressures that Zimbardo mentioned (in the Stanford Prison Experiment). I found myself being hardened toward the prisoners and a willing participant in maintaining the harsh and inmate-harassing climate of a ship’s brig. I was becoming a person I didn’t want to be. Luckily, an opportunity arose for me work as an orderly to the ship’s captain. I was glad I got out of there when I did.”

The second was as a young graduate student in Sociology studying the  prison systems of the world – particularly the unique methods in Scandinavia. Then as chief of police in Madison, Wisc. where I required new police recruits to spend a night in jail. [They would be randomly selected had no knowledge of when they would be "arrested" and jailed]. Each one of these experiences enlightened me about prisons, those who inhabit them, and those who put people in them.

It turned out that my wife was one of those young Madison recruits who spent a night in jail. To this day, she still feels it was one of the most influential experiences during her preparation to become a police officer. She said that because knowing what jail was like, how it messed up a person’s life, their family, work and other relationships, caused her carefully use her discretion when it came to someone there. I came to the same conclusion in my experience as a jail guard and later through my academic studies.

A few years later, we had to abandon the practice because of jail overcrowding. Looking back, if we had continued this practice in Madison maybe it would have been the one factor that could have greatly reduced our county’s jail population. Earlier, we had made national strides in reducing that same jail population by diverting public inebriates to a detox facility rather than jail.

Looking back, I wish I had never permitted ”the jail experience” to be dropped from our training curriculum. Raemisch convinces me even more that anyone who has the power to hold another human being in a cage needs to understand what it is like — to actually experience it. After all, don’t we expose police officers in training to pepper spray and even Tasers? Why not jail?

However, to really experience what it is like to be locked in a cage and deprived of human companionship for years, months, or even weeks or days, will take more than an overnight visit. It will take intentional selection, training, and leading police officers who we can be sure are able to make compassionate decisions and who understand and honor the dignity and worth of every human person.

Rick is spot on. I wish him the best as we begin to understand that long-term solitary confinement drives humans crazy. And, at the same time, understand that driving prisoners crazy will not make us safer. There are better ways to “correct” criminal behavior.