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Tom Clements, Slain Colorado Prisons Chief, Was Forward-Thinking And Fought Back Prison Culture

Mar 21, 2013

Prison work is an insular occupation. Corrections officials tend to inhabit a culture unto themselves– tight-lipped, low profile and tough as nails. Tom Clements was an exception.

In his two years in Colorado, the state Corrections chief who was gunned down at his home Tuesday managed not only to win the warm regard of state government colleagues, but also of a wide web of outsiders, including some of his department’s toughest critics.

Prisoners’ rights watchdogs, juvenile justice advocates and others with long histories of fighting – and often suing — the Corrections Department found in Clements an open ear and approachability they’d never seen in the system’s top ranks.

“We’re heartbroken,” says Christie Donner, executive director of Colorado’s Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and a 17-year veteran of run-ins with the Corrections Department. “There wasn’t one aspect of Tom’s work that wasn’t totally about efficiency and better outcomes. There was an incredible warmth to him and an appreciation of the complexities of his job and the lives he interacted with.”

Before Clements was tapped for the position by Gov. John Hickenlooper, no one would have described the department as forward-thinking. On the contrary, it was the agency that kept touting a heavily flawed study it had sponsored that concluded prolonged solitary confinement doesn’t inflict psychological damage on prisoners, but rather may improve their mental health.

Clements was skeptical. He was “appalled,” he said, to learn that 47 percent of Colorado prisoners serving time in prolonged isolation without human contact or even outdoor exercise were being released directly onto the streets. He said that statistic kept him up at night.

He immediately commissioned a new study on Colorado’s costly solitary confinement policies. His inquiry led to his decision to close Colorado State Penitentiary II, a two-year-old, $208 million supermax prison designed exclusively for isolation. He also reduced the use of solitary confinement in other prisons and, for the first time in a generation, revamped the way his department classifies inmates.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got,” he said.

Clements closed the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Southern Colorado and launched a study that likely will lead to other prison closures.

He supported a plan to lower felony drug sentences and divert savings into treatment programs for prisoners. And he backed a bill last year to limit charging and sentencing juveniles as adults, a move that diverted money away from his Youth Offender System – a sacrifice he was willing to make as a matter of ethics and good governance.

“He said he didn’t see why Corrections should have a stake in this. This was about due process in the courtroom and he thought it was the right thing to do,” says Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, which championed, and won, the direct-file bill.

Clements endured major blows last summer when, just after he was seriously injured in a bike accident, corrections officer Mary Ricard was killed at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Bedridden and hospitalized when he got the news, he nevertheless insisted on attending her funeral.

Dvorchak remembers Clements’ first day back at work. Clearly in pain, he met his commitment for a long-scheduled meeting on preventing youth suicides in the prison system.

“He could have cancelled the meeting with an advocacy group, or at least postponed it. But he showed up with his cane smiling, as if nothing had happened, and expecting to get down to business. I’d call that incomparable accessibility,” she says.

As many who watched him work tell it, Clements had a knack for multitasking without appearing distracted. On his agenda every week were matters relating to gang wars, new forms of contraband and health concerns for prisoners, as well as release and parole decisions, staff misconduct complaints, union negotiations, budget cuts, personnel reductions and local, national and international media inquiries. There was also the looming prospect of having to dust off the execution chamber at the Colorado State Penitentiary and carry out the death penalty against convicted Chuck E. Cheese’s killer Nathan Dunlap, whose appeals were exhausted last month.

It’s uncertain, in the immediate aftermath of his death, whether Clements’ assassination related to his job – either to the people he imprisoned or the staff he managed. If he was worried about his safety, sources who knew him well say he didn’t show it.

Allen Ault, a former Colorado Department of Corrections director who also led the National Academy of Corrections in Boulder, says safety is a concern for anyone in Clements’ position. As a longtime corrections director in several states, Ault says that Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader, once put a contract on his life. During that time, Ault says he and his family lived with 24/7 security and surveillance.

“My body guards always checked my car. They’d check under my car. They did what they could,” he says. “But in this business, you know who you’re dealing with and what they’re capable of. You always knew that if they came after you, their chances would be pretty good.”

Tom Clements Death

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