Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Promising Practices

Step-down program


Colorado Department of Corrections

Brief Summary

Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) Executive Director Rick Raemisch, working off the foundation set by his predecessor, implemented a progressive step-down program, which has helped to ensure that no individual is released directly into the community from segregation. Individuals housed in Close Custody Management Control Units (MCU) and Close Custody Transition Units (CCTU) are given the opportunity to re-socialize with small groups of individuals, while still being managed within highly structured and controlled environments. As a result of this and other reforms, the average length of stay in restrictive housing across Colorado state prisons has decreased 71 percent from 2013 to 2015, and the number of assaults among incarcerated people dropped 17 percent from 2008 to 2015.

The Goal

This step-down program was designed to ensure that people are not directly released from segregation to the community and to align Colorado’s administrative segregation system with best practices. In 2011, CDOC found that it had a significant number of people in administrative segregation—higher than the national average. Efforts were made to provide additional resources and continuity to those reentering society following a stay in restricted housing.

The Process

In 2009, the CDOC was sued by Nathan Dunlap, an individual being housed in administrative segregation. Dunlap said he had been denied exercise and fresh air for decades, since his death row status made him ineligible to leave administrative segregation, and thus ineligible for those privileges.

In October of 2011, the CDOC made a formal request to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to have an external review of its classification and administrative segregation policies and practices. The NIC found that about 7 percent of the entire prison population was in administrative segregation, which is significantly higher than the national average of 1 to 2. Based on their findings, the NIC issued a series of recommendations, including requiring a mandatory mental health review before placement in administrative segregation, and monthly reviews thereafter; requiring a minimum of a 30-minute out-of-cell contact each month between the incarcerated person and his/her caseworker; and creating a step-down program with specific rules and privileges associated with each phase.

Raemisch asked corrections staff to work together on a complete overhaul of CDOC’s administrative segregation. Staff were integrally involved in all aspects of the policy change, including the development of new procedures, all based on the NIC recommendations.
The passage of Colorado Senate Bill 11-176 required the CDOC executive director to provide an annual written report to the legislature on the status of administrative segregation, reclassification efforts for offenders with mental illnesses, and any internal reform efforts. Raemisch pushed the reforms further to develop the step-down programs, based on repeated studies that indicate long-term isolation is harmful to individuals and counterproductive to community safety.

The Solution

Policy changes were made to CDOC’s administrative segregation unit and a step-down program was implemented. In CDOC’s new step-down program, people are allowed to come out of their assigned rooms and socialize with small groups of other incarcerated people, yet are still managed within highly structured and controlled close custody environments to ensure the safety of staff and individual populations.

These newly developed units, called Close Custody Management Control Units (MCU) and Close Custody Transition Units (CCTU), were designed to transition people to general population using pro-social stabilization and cognitive intervention programming. While these units are more restrictive than the general population, they are much less restrictive than administrative segregation and the newly implemented Restrictive Housing – Maximum Security status.

Currently, people assigned to MCU are allowed access to the day hall in groups for four hours per day, including access to the day hall’s exercise room. People assigned to CCTU are allowed to gather in the day hall for six hours per day, including access to the exercise room. They are also allowed one hour per week to exercise in the gymnasium and outdoor area adjacent to it. People in all three Management Control Units now receive science, math, social studies, and cognitive classes delivered by television. Many also receive ABE/GED education in classroom settings and are offered conflict management classes, among others.

Individuals assigned to MCU are reviewed for progress every 90 days by the facility’s internal classification committee.  People remaining in MCU longer than 12 months are reviewed by the central classification unit and the director of prisons at headquarters.  Assignment to CCTU is used for progressive management and is a temporary assignment that generally lasts up to six months.  Upon completion of CCTU individuals are reclassified to a lower custody facility.

The Results

In 2014, after hundreds of prisoners were returned to less restrictive settings, offender-on-offender violenceincreased. Yet, overall from 2008 through 2015, the average number of assaults among incarcerated people dropped by 17 percent. Assaults on staff decreased significantly. Between 2008 and 2013, there were an average of 262 assaults on staff per year, but those numbers have dropped to 188 in 2014 and 160 in 2015. In 2015, there were an average of 158 individuals serving up to one year in Restrictive Housing-Maximum Security in Colorado, spending up to 22 hours a day in their cells. The average length of confinement dropped 71 percent from 2013 to 2015—from 28 months to 8 months.

Staff buy-in increased after they began to witness successful, permanent transitions of individuals who had historically been difficult to manage. The department continued to adjust program protocols to facilitate the most effective atmosphere for rehabilitation.

Lessons Learned

CDOC encountered some obstacles during the creation and implementation of the administrative segregation reform efforts. To overcome these obstacles, feedback, concerns and suggestions from staff were considered by executive staff as the reforms were implemented. This included involving staff in the process of policy and operations development. The facility management teams were given autonomy to take the executive director’s stated goals and operationalize them – therefore strengthening the ownership of the processes. It is this staff and culture of progressive thinking that made all of the reforms occurring in Colorado possible.

This Promising Practices section of the SAS Resource Center was developed as part of a collaborative effort with the Vera Institute of Justice, University of Michigan Law School, and Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. We are also deeply grateful to the many leaders across the country who created and implemented each of the reforms cited throughout this section for their efforts to reduce the use of restrictive housing in prisons and jails across the country.

Please note that Vera and our partners do not specifically endorse the practices and policies included in this section. The Promising Practices section features segregation reforms being implemented in prisons and jails around the country. Our goal is to serve as a resource to other jail and prison systems interested in implementing similar practices and policies by highlighting those jurisdictions that report successful reforms.