Colo. corrections director called a ‘breath of fresh air’

Tom Clements, who was shot and killed when he answered his door in Monument on Tuesday night, was a rare prison chief who removed hundreds of inmates from long-term solitary confinement. He began long-needed mental-health-treatment programs for prisoners.

As director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, he saw his job as preventing his prisoners from returning to a life of crime.

“The reality is when you look at everyone who is serving a sentence in a prison in Colorado, 97 percent are serving a sentence that allows for them to be released from prison and to go back home, wherever home is for them,” Clements said in a wide-ranging interview last month with Colorado Public News.

During his two-year tenure in Colorado, he presided over a steep decline in the state’s prison population, from 22,674, to 20,100 and falling. The reduction was due largely to a drop in crime and changes in sentencing laws. As a result, under Clements’ watch, prisons were closed – including the new, no-longer-needed Colorado State Penitentiary II, which was comprised of 900 cells for solitary confinement.

At the end, he oversaw 20 state-owned prisons.

Last month, the state’s Chief Public Defender, Doug Wilson, pointed at Clements’ photo on the Department of Corrections website and said, “This guy right here, Tom Clements, has made a dramatic difference in philosophy at DOC. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”

“Tom has brought in some different perspectives as to not only how to treat the inmates, but has brought some programs, developed some programs that are taking care of the mentally ill, and taking care of some of the really sick folks at DOC,” Wilson told Colorado Public News.

Clements’ philosophy and commitment to reforms also drew praise from other groups who have been at odds with the DOC, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The ACLU credited him for taking “significant strides to protect the civil rights and human dignity of prisoners.”

Under a review that Clements ordered, 485 of 1,500 prisoners had been moved out of solitary confinement as of this January. After being moved into general population, they had access to mental-health and drug treatment, education and prerelease programs, Wilson said.

Clements said he particularly wanted to reduce the number of prisoners being released to the community directly from solitary confinement – called administrative segregation in corrections parlance.

“When individuals are … basically in their cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week, and then leave that environment directly to the community, that certainly raises some concerns about public safety,” Clements said during the interview. “I’m pleased to tell you that two years ago, 47 percent of all the releases from segregation were going directly to the community, and that’s down to 23 percent.”

Many of those inmates kept in isolation had serious mental-health problems, and Clements created a high-security treatment program for them instead.

“It’s really kind of an alternative to placement in administrative segregation based on the reality that their mental-health condition and symptoms of the mental-health issues were the driving factor of their disruptive behavior in prison.”

“I’d rather see them … demonstrate that they can live peacefully and responsibly in a general-population prison environment before they transition back to the community.”

Clements also expressed concern about the increasing number of Colorado prisoners with serious mental-health problems, from about 23 percent to 33 percent of the prison population during the last six years.

“I’m asking for additional mental-health resources,” he said, adding the Legislature has been “very sensitive” to this issue.

In addition to mental issues, “85 percent of the people coming out of the prison have a history of substance abuse and substance addiction,” Clements said. “So managing relapse and relapse-prevention strategies are a big part of the parole supervision.”

That work included coordinating with community mental-health programs to start building in care for inmates as they leave prison. Currently, many have a months-long gap in treatment, and they often end up back in trouble and back in prison.

“If you’ve got a long gap, that could be a void where new problems develop, both in mental-health issues and to the point of corrections and public safety, criminal behavior,” Clements said.

Clements also responded to questions about a state deal that kept unneeded private prisons open this year, wasting millions of dollars, while awaiting a study due June 30 advising the governor and lawmakers which state and private prisons should be closed.

The study is meant to improve inmate population projections, determine which closures would save the most money and which would hurt the economies of rural communities – where many prisons are located – the least.

“The time it’s taking to do the prison utilization study is a good investment,” Clements told CPN. “The impact on the correctional system, the impact on local communities, when prisons are opened or closed, either way, is profound.’

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who expressed his profound sadness when he announced Clements’ death this week, had recruited the corrections chief for his job. Clements came to Colorado from Missouri, where he worked in corrections for more than three decades. At the DOC, he oversaw a staff of 6,022 employees.

According to law enforcement, Clements, 58, was shot in the chest when he opened the door of his home at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. No suspects or motive have been identified.