A former Dane County Sheriff who later went on to head the department of corrections in Colorado is speaking out for prison reform.
Rick Raemisch, who spent five terms as the Dane County Sheriff, spoke to the Waunakee Rotary Club on Oct. 24 about the need for more humanized prisons and less solitary confinement – not so much in sympathy for the prisoners, but for public protection, he said, noting that eventually, these prisoners are released.
In his talk titled Rethinking Corrections in the United States, Rick pointed out that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country.
He has visited both the Swedish and German prison systems, and said in Sweden, where the population is 10.3 million, fewer than 5,000 people are incarcerated.
When he was director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, he oversaw 20,000 inmates. Colorado’s overall population is about 5.2 million, Rick said.
In the Colorado prison system, like others throughout the U.S., 77 percent of all inmates are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both, according to Rick. About 30 percent have mental health issues, and of those, 12 percent are seriously mentally ill, he said.
“Every state prison system is the largest mental health institution in their state. The myth that we deinstitutionalized mental health institutions is a myth,” Rick said.
Rick said the second half the equation for closing mental health institutions in the 1960s – funding local governments to offer treatment – was never fulfilled.
The size of U.S. prisons also contrasts with those in other countries. Rick said in most European prisons, the maximum capacity is 500 offenders. The largest prison in Colorado has 2,500 inmates.
“I would think, what the hell can I do with 2,500 inmates because I knew if I had 2,500 nuns under one roof, they were going to start punching each other out. It’s just too many people,” Rick said.
The difference between U.S. prisons and those in Europe is that Europe tends to humanize offenders, according to Rick. A good example can be seen in the architecture, which in the U.S. tends to be cement and steel structures.
“My belief is that virtually every prison in the United States, built the way it was, manufactures violence,” Rick said.
Another example of the dehumanizing effect is the placement of the toilet under the sink in the cells.
Supermax prisons confine prisoners to cells 23 hours per day, five days a week and 48 hours on weekends, Rick noted.
“You’re locked in a cell the size of parking space 23 hours a day. It can be for decades,” Rick said.
One prisoner who held the record for the longest time in a Supermax prison – 44 years of solitary confinement – could no longer focus his vision any distance after being in such small quarters.
Rick said he spoke with a psychiatrist who spent his career studying the effects of solitary confinement, interviewing prisoners shortly after they entered and then again after 10 years.
“He said ‘I have only seen what they’re feeling, their degree in loneliness, in one other types of people.’ When I asked who, he said terminally ill cancer patients,” Rick said.
Other News:
-Food For Kids surpassed its goal of packaging 500,000 meals Sunday. Organizer Mick Holm thanked the Rotary Club for their efforts.
-Halloween at the Farm is Saturday from 5-9 p.m. at Schumacher Farm Park.
Guests: Mike Ripp, guest of Connie Blau; Tara Schneidewind, guest of Ken Pesik; Rick Raemisch, speaker.
Corporate Associates: Kylie West, for Todd Schmidt.
Visiting Rotarians: None.
Birthdays: Nov. 4, Roxanne Johnson; Nov. 5, Nick Mischler
Anniversaries: Nov. 6, Tom and Kari Roepke
Programs: Oct. 31, Tiffany Schulz, BBB 101; Nov. 7, Janet Gilmore, History of Wisconsin Fish Fry.
Greeters: Oct. 31, Daniel Evans and Jim Fitzpatrick; Nov. 7, Brian Franzen and Greg Garton.