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Broomfield Detention Center weighs in on solitary confinement law

A new law on restrictive housing in jails has some “gray areas,” a Broomfield Detention Center commander said.
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A new solitary confinement law in Colorado lacks detailed definitions and state funding, said Shawn Laughlin, a commander with the Broomfield Detention Center.

House Bill 21-1211, Regulation of Restrictive Housing in Jails, mandates that those placed in solitary confinement be seen by a mental health professional within 24 hours, and visited regularly. 

The law, which took effect July 1, applies to jails that have more than 400 inmates. The Broomfield Detention Center currently houses around 224 inmates, but the facility decided to follow the new law anyway, Laughlin said.

“We look at all bills and all laws that come out of Colorado, and see if we can be compliant regardless, if it’s what we consider to be good business practices,” Laughlin said.

But he said the law has some “gray areas,” which have made it hard to follow. For example, an inmate can’t be placed in solitary confinement if they have a ‘serious mental illness’ — the law needs more specific details, Laughlin said.

“Some of the terminology leaves a lot to be desired,” he said. “What’s the definition of a serious mental illness? The word ‘serious’ for example, I might look at that situation and feel that person is compliant with the rules and regulations, but a mental health professional might come and say, ‘no, they have a serious mental illness.’ But it’s the jail that has to adhere to the restrictive housing law, not the mental health professional — it binds the jail itself legally.”

An inmate also can’t be placed in restrictive housing if they have a “significant auditory or visual impairment.”

“What does that mean? Is it under 20/20 vision? Or 15/20? For auditory, is it 8 out of 10 on the scale? Or 4 out of 10?” Laughlin said. “Another one is ‘significantly neurocognitively impaired by a condition such as dementia or a TBI,’ well there’s lots of other causes of neurocognitive impairments, right, so are those going to be coded as well?”

Inmates who aren’t allowed in solitary confinement must be allowed out of their cells for two hours a day, but jails don’t have endless personnel and funding to support various needs of different inmates, Laughlin said.

“The law was written with good intentions, but it was written without a lot of forethought, given how jails actually function and operate,” he said.

The Broomfield Detention Center currently spends around $142,470 on mental health services, and an additional $23,848 on medication assisted clinical work, which supports the facility’s mental health programming.

The detention center’s partner, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, has allocated $760,190 in its 2023 proposed budget to comply with the law — the sheriff’s office is hiring four mental health counselors, as well as a data analyst to maintain records for those in solitary confinement. None of the positions were funded by the state.

“We did have issues with the bill being unfunded,” Laughlin said.