I was in Colorado DOC director Rick Raemisch’s office discussing violence – about death threats and murder attempts unleashed on Raemisch as he’s served in various high-risk jobs – when Kellie Wasko bounded in. Wasko’s been with the DOC for 14 years and is now the new deputy executive director. She entered the room like thunder, wearing a red jacket and her hair in a bun. She has a bristly, unapologetic sort of charm, and her nemesis issue that day was figuring out what to do about the mentally ill in the Colorado prison system.
Raemisch, who has taken command of the DOC in the wake of his predecessor’s assassination, has been in brawls, has had people call him in the middle of the night whispering “I’m going to kill you” over the phone line; coke dealers have aimed guns at him and one tried to fillet him with a fishing knife outside a dodgy bar. Certain elements of the threat that resulted in the death of the former DOC director last year also persist for Raemisch. But, you could argue that there are people in prison who are doing infinitely more frightening things to themselves than any of Raemisch’s “fans” have tried to do to him.
Like the guy with a severe schizoaffective disorder who ate the lips off his own face.
Housing mentally ill inmates in ad-seg has been an ongoing stain on the Colorado DOC, with rates that have been twice as high as the national average. The ACLU cites it as cruel and unusual punishment, a blatantly unconstitutional practice that researches now well know only amplifies violent behavior and augments lunacy.
You start to grasp the state of mind of ad seg dwellers when you learn of their self-mutilating behavior. Like the one who chewed into the skin inside his cheek and pushed air into the opening until his face looked like a giant skin balloon. This is common enough to have a term: “Third Spacing,” Wasko told me. Some repeatedly smash their face against the walls. Some swallow razors. Throwing “shit bombs” at guards and the walls is par for the course.
“That’s nothing,” said Raemisch. Wasko agreed, said in a hush: “One inserted 13 chicken bones into his penis – all the way to his kidneys.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“That’s even possible?”
Somber nods. Possible indeed.