This past year has been one of loneliness and isolation for many. We have been denied the company of family and friends. The things that bring us joy and help us mark the time have been taken away. Social distancing and quarantine have taken a toll on our collective mental health. 

However, as we’re isolated with Netflix and take-out, we should reflect on what it’s like to be isolated between four cement walls, with nothing but a mat on a concrete slab and a toilet. Nothing to look at but white walls. No way to know day from night, winter from summer, reality from hallucination.

Rep. Judy Amabile

Many national experts say that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment and is harmful to an individual’s health. In Colorado, we have no regulatory structure around the use of this harmful practice in jails statewide.  

As in many other states, individuals in Colorado with serious mental health conditions are entering the criminal justice system at alarming rates, often as a result of unmet health needs. These individuals, many of whom have only been charged with a crime and have not been found guilty, are placed in isolation — solitary confinement — at the risk of further worsening their health condition. 

Studies have shown that the psychological stress created from isolation clinically compares to the distress of physical torture.

For those of us with family members who suffer from serious mental illness, these stories are not about some distant other. They are about our sons, daughters, husbands, and brothers. 

We know that our loved ones are just one bad day away from finding themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, possibly subjected to weeks or months of incarceration for the crime of having a devastating illness. 

They might be subjected to full body restraints and weeks or months in solitary confinement. They might never recover from the trauma. 

This has to stop.

That is why I am joining with state Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Mental Health Colorado in introducing House Bill 1211, titled “Regulation of Restrictive Housing in Jails.” 

The measure would eliminate the practice of placing juveniles and people with specific health conditions like pregnancy, dementia, or serious mental health conditions in solitary confinement in Colorado jails. HB 1211 would only apply to Colorado’s largest jails — those with over 400 beds.

We as a community must take a stand against this harmful practice. We have to fix this. Of course, we can and must do more to fix this broken system, but in the meantime, we cannot as a society continue to condone torture.

Judy Amabile, Democrat of Boulder, represents District 13, including parts of Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand and Jackson counties, in the Colorado House of Representatives.

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Judy Amabile, of Boulder, represents District 49 in the Colorado House Representatives.