Colorado prisons set for reform after Polis signs bill regulating use of metal restraints

Colorado’s prisons must reform their use of metal restraints on mentally ill inmates in the coming four years under a new bill signed into law Tuesday regulating a practice that one lawmaker likened to torture.

The bill — HB23-1013 — requires the state Department of Corrections to conform with the “gold standard” regulations of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care on the use of restraints. That would institute regulations in Colorado that either don’t exist or are looser than national benchmarks: Critics had accused the department of chaining inmates to beds for hours at a time, with little medical oversight and unclear guidelines for initiating or ending seclusion.

There were 219 “restraint events” involving inmates in five Colorado prisons between 2020 and 2022, according to a state fiscal analysis of the bill. One former inmate told the Denver Post in October that he was chained at the wrists and ankles for 20 consecutive hours. Two other people were restrained for more than 60 days apiece during the course of a year, according to a report compiled by Disability Law Colorado.

Under the new law, which Gov. Jared Polis signed Tuesday, Colorado prisons have until 2027 to adopt the national commission’s more rigorous standards. They include the use of soft restraints, rather than metal cuffs; the direct and routine involvement of health professionals; and regular checks on restrained inmates. Those standards would also generally cap the use of restraints at 12 hours.

The new law “is a huge victory for human rights, and we are satisfied that the end result will lead to huge improvements in the quality of life of people with mental illness in (state prisons),” said Meghan Baker, an attorney with Disability Law Colorado and supporter of the bill.

The bill gives the Corrections Department a multi-year runway to conform to the standards, a change from the more immediate timeline that legislators had first proposed. Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said she learned that the agency was planning to conform to the standards anyway as part of a national accreditation process and decided to allow the agency to stick to a longer timeline.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said she was unable to provide comment Wednesday.

The bill also requires better documentation and tracking of the use of restraints, and the Corrections Department must submit annual reports to legislators detailing that tracking. It also regulates the use of involuntary medication on inmates. The measure doesn’t impact jails, many of which use a “restraint chair” on inmates. Amabile said a state commission on jail conditions is working on that issue.

“I think we’re going to stop some people from getting abused,” she said of the new law. “I think (the department is) going to be more thoughtful going forward, even before they get the accreditation because they can’t just stop overnight doing what they’re doing. They’re going to have to move in that direction now, and they know that people are watching.”

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