Tom Clements, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was killed in his home on March 19, 2013. Reuters Most Americans don’t think or talk much about the way prisons in this country are funded or run. We want a vague, blanket assurance that our politicians and their appointees are being tough on crime. We pay attention to verdicts and to sentences but not to what happens afterward, to the experience that a convicted criminal has over the years before he or she most likely reenters society. We forget—or we simply don’t bother to recognize—that the nature of this experience has an effect on whether the criminal breaks the law again. We want to feel safe, and yet we’re utterly uneducated about, and inattentive to, a part of our criminal justice system that in fact has enormous bearing on our safety. Tom Clements, who was the head of Colorado’s prison system from the start of 2011 until his murder this week, made me realize that. A little over two months ago, on a reporting trip to Colorado, I happened to find myself seated a few feet from him at a dinner in Cañon City, about a two-hour drive from Denver. He happened to mention what he did for a living. And for the next 30 minutes, over bad steak and worse salmon, I sought, and got, a lively tutorial. It was fascinating enough and he was engaging enough that I tucked his card into my pocket and made him promise that we could talk again sometime. An approachable and affable man, he promised. On Tuesday night, he was shot and killed by an unknown assailant as he answered the front door of his home in Monument, near Colorado Springs. He was 58. I wish I’d taken notes during our conversation, so I could reproduce them here. I wish I recalled it in more detail. Because what was clear to me from those 30 minutes, and from a few additional exchanges we had at the table as the night wore on, was that Clements knew his business, cared about it and was someone to whom we owed a debt of gratitude. He wanted us safe. And in the service of that, he worked in a byway of the government that a great many of us pay insufficient heed to. Prison chief doesn’t have the media currency of police commissioner. It’s not a glamour job. And Clements, whose actual title was executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, wasn’t a glamour guy: unfashionable haircut, slightly shaggy moustache, a smile too genuinely easy and uncalculated to be that of a seasoned pol. But he and others in his line of work deserve recognition, so I’d like to give him at least a measure of it here. It’s too little too late, but it’s something. During my conversation with him, which I hadn’t yet followed up on, we talked mostly about “administrative segregation,” otherwise known as solitary confinement. It’s used rampantly in prisons across the country, and according to Clements, it’s used wantonly and unwisely, because it’s an easy way to deal with prisoners who have caused trouble. But there are downsides. It’s expensive. And it’s psychologically debilitating, which is worth caring about even if you feel that convicted criminals in prison deserve what punishment they get. In more than a few cases, Clements told me, prisoners being released are coming directly from months-long stints in solitary confinement, and they bear the mental and emotional scars of that. That’s not some bleeding-heart assessment; that’s a situation and concern described just a few weeks ago in a column by the conservative commentator George F. Will, who wrote: “Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.” I talked this morning to John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado and one of Clements’s biggest fans, and he said that Clements was in the process of a “transformation within the culture of the entire prison system away from solitary confinement into actual preparation for reentry into society.” Hickenlooper said that Clements was also “focused on how to have these individuals in prison”—meaning all of them, not just those in solitary confinement—“ready to hold a job and not just go back to prison, so that it’s not a revolving door.” To that end, Hickenlooper said, Clements promoted initiatives large and small. At one penitentiary, female inmates are taught to train dogs, something that some of them go on to do professionally after they’re released. In fact, a puppy that the governor got for his son around Christmastime was sent away for two weeks of training in the prison, and then sent back for another two weeks when the first stretch didn’t fully take. I met the pup, Sky, a mixed breed from a rescue shelter, between her two training sessions. Adorable as she was, she needed the latter, refresher course. Since January 2011, when Clements assumed his post in Colorado, the state has closed two prisons, and there’s another one that will likely be closed this year. That reduction partly reflects a desire to wrest control of spending, a challenge that the entire country faces right now. And what Clements talked about at dinner that night was the way in which a focus on rehabilitating prisoners—on trying to make sure that their time behind bars was more constructive than destructive—represented something of a twofer. It was morally right, he said, in that it exercised compassion and human decency. And it was fiscally prudent, because ex-convicts who don’t reoffend are ex-convicts who don’t have to be housed anew, at considerable taxpayer expense, in the corrections system. He felt great compassion for inmates, and a lifetime of working with them—as a parole office in Missouri, and later as the second-in-command of that state’s prison system, and finally in Colorado—had if anything increased that, Hickenlooper told me. “He oversaw one of the coldest, toughest worlds with the warmest and most tender of hearts,” the governor said. Clements was a member of the governor’s cabinet, which has frequent meetings and retreats. “We had a retreat about a year ago, and we were discussing the death penalty, which is obviously going to come up,” Hickenlooper said, referring to a looming case in the state. “And he spoke about it. He’s a bear of a guy, a big, formidable person, and when it came time for him to talk, he gave the most eloquent, restrained argument against the death penalty.” “Everyone assumed he would be for it, because he works with the worst elements of society day in and day out,” the governor continued, using the present tense. “Everyone was dumbstruck.” But Clements had done the math, and it was costing governments more to execute someone, what with all the legal buildup, than to incarcerate him or her. Clements had also noticed a randomness in who got killed and who didn’t: the executed weren’t the ones who’d committed the most heinous crimes. And then there were Clements’s religious beliefs. “He believed,” Hickenlooper said, “that only God can decide to take a life.” Clements and I didn’t talk about religion when I met him. But we did talk about redemption. Giving people a shot at that, he said, was what the prison system should do—and what he was dedicated to.
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