In the week since the tragic killing of Colorado Department of Corrections Chief Tom Clements — one night before Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed a comprehensive gun violence prevention package into law — several telling details have emerged about the primary suspect Evan Ebel that will play into investigation of the case. Reports suggest that Ebel, who had served 8 years in prison for armed robberies, was known as a troubled child who sometimes signed his name “Evil Evan.” They suggest that he had another woman buy a gun and illegally transfer it to him, and that stronger laws for universal background checks and straw purchases might have affected his case. But one element of the criminal justice system that stands out particularly in his story has nothing to do with guns. Ebel spent the bulk of his prison time in solitary confinement, an extreme condition that has been found to exacerbate violent tendencies, and that both Clements and Ebel’s parents had spoken out against.
In a meticulous story that tracks the communications between Ebel and former fellow inmate Ryan Pettigrew, the Colorado Independent explains how Ebel’s actions have been linked to the post-solitary confinement trauma he communicated to Pettigrew in the two months between his release from prison and the killing of Clements. Pettigrew, who also spent time in solitary confinement, explained how the long-term isolation in a sometimes window-less cell for years builds up not just psychological trauma, but hate and violent tendencies, of the sort Clements was advocating to prevent. The newspaper explains:
In an exclusive interview last spring, Clements said that, immediately after Hickenlooper recruited him from Missouri to run the Colorado corrections department, he found disturbing “one very alarming statistic” he said kept him up at night — that 47 percent of Colorado prisoners being released from isolation were walking directly out onto the streets without help reintegrating into social environments and interacting with people.
Clements wanted longer transition periods and step-down programs before setting isolated prisoners free. As Pettigrew tells it, Ebel said he had little help making that transition. He said altercations during his brief period in a step-down program landed him back in isolation. […]
“We have to think about how what we do in prisons impacts the community when [prisoners] leave,” Clements continued. “It’s not just about running the prison safely and securely. There’s a lot of research around solitary and isolation in recent years, some tied to POWs and some to corrections. My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.” […]
Pettigrew said he thought many corrections officers weren’t receptive to the reforms Clements was making.
“The old school guards in there, they just hated what he has doing and would come down even harder on us. You develop such a hatred not only from being in solitary but from having been pocked with a stick that long.”
Ebel’s parents also observed that Evan’s behavior changed after his time in solitary, and testified during a hearing in favor of a bill that would require inmates to spend time outside of solitary confinement before leaving prison: “What I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious. So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-a-half before we can actually talk.”
Research about solitary confinement not only suggests that it is a cruel and unusual treatment particularly when applied to the mentally ill, but also that, rather than rehabilitate prisoners, it can make a bad situation worse. In a National Geographic documentary on the practice, one prisoner said, “I think 90 percent of the people that are locked up here, if they ran into a staff member on the streets, they’d hurt ’em. … It’s hate that’s been building up in you.”