Colorado legislators advanced a bill Tuesday to limit the use of physical restraints on inmates in acute mental health crises, sidestepping a disputed price tag and avoiding what one lawmaker described as the “soulless exercise” of trading money for policy.
Under current law, few guardrails exist to limit the use of four-point restraints in Colorado prisons. Inmates in acute mental health crises can be kept tied to beds using metal cuffs for hours on end, Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, told fellow legislators. One inmate had been restrained for 39 consecutive days, she said, and others were placed in adult diapers or needed bandaging because the metal had cut into their skin.
There were 47 “restraint incidents” in the first eight months of 2022, according to Department of Corrections data.
HB23-1013 seeks to change that. Sponsored by Amabile, the bill would place time limits on the use of the restraints, require that they be made of fabric instead of metal, and mandate more thorough medical involvement throughout the process. The bill would also require that inmates only be placed in the restraints if they’re a danger to themselves or others and if all other options had been exhausted. The bill would bring the use of restraint in Colorado’s prisons in line with how they’re used at the state hospital in Pueblo, Amabile said.
But the reform effort comes — apparently — with a hefty price tag: The Department of Corrections says it would need roughly $20 million to hire the equivalent of 202 full-time employees to implement the bill’s provisions, according to a joint analysis by the agency and legislative staffers.
That projected cost likely presents a significant obstacle to the bill’s passage. Though it’s a “preliminary” assessment, a high fiscal note — the formal term for the financial analysis attached to legislation — can still act as a potential anchor around a bill’s neck in a budget-minded Capitol.
Aware of the danger posed to the bill by its apparent cost, Amabile asked lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to avoid placing dollars over inmates’ dignity. She asked them to consider what it would feel like to be chained to a bed for days on end and called it a “soulless exercise” to “trade policy for money.”
“That’s what we’ve been doing,” she said. “Maybe give a little less care to these human beings in exchange for making this fiscal note a little smaller. That leaves me cold every time we do it, but I do understand that we are living here in the real world. But I urge you to think about the human beings that are involved in this treatment, and I urge you to think about how history will look back on the things that we did to human begins whose crime is that they’re suffering from a serious mental illness.”
The price tag, Amabile said, is “inexplicable.” In September, she’d revised the bill in an attempt to lower the projected cost, and she did so again ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, striking out some reporting provisions and broadening who could check on restrained inmates. But the fiscal analysis on the tweaked version of the bill came back even larger: $22 million.
Amabile said she could only speculate about why the cost projects keep going up, despite her working actively with the Department of Corrections to adjust the bill and lower its financial impact on the agency.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday. Adrienne Sanchez, the agency’s legislative liaison, told lawmakers that the use of the restraints could happen at multiple facilities, day or night, and that prisons would need multiple staff, plus medical personnel, to restrain an inmate in crisis.
Ultimately, the price tag didn’t concern lawmakers. The Judiciary Committee voted 12-1 to advance the bill, with some representatives saying they hoped the bill was a step toward abolishing the use of restraints altogether. Rep. Mike Weissman, the chair of the committee, said he’d stared down “eight-digit fiscal notes before” and called them challenging but not impossible.
Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams County Democrat, said “life-changing policies” had been shelved in the legislature in the past because of projected costs, and she called the estimates for Amabile’s bill “wildly inappropriate.”
“I hope that, in good faith, the DOC will continue to work with you and bring more reality to this,” Garcia said, “so we can get it done.”
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