Everyone has seen those old Hollywood movies where the hero gets himself locked up in a prison or insane asylum so he can report on its abuses, only to get stuck inside. Nobody believes he is who he says he is. His screams go unheard.
Rick Raemisch has seen those movies, too. So on the night in January when his hands were cuffed behind his back and his legs were shackled, and he was led to solitary confinement in a Colorado prison, Raemisch tucked a small identification card in his sock. He felt a little foolish doing it. He wanted the experience of any inmate going into solitary.
Of course, Raemisch wasn’t just any inmate, or an inmate at all. He’s executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Raemisch, 61, the former Dane County sheriff, never needed to reach for his ID during the 20 hours he spent in Administrative Segregation — solitary confinement. Not that it was a pleasant experience. On the contrary, it reinforced Raemisch’s belief that solitary confinement needs to be used sparingly.
But part of this story is that Raemisch may never again need a card to identify himself. Ever since his night in solitary — and especially after he wrote about it in The New York Times — Raemisch, a Madison East High School graduate, has became something of a celebrity.
Is it possible for a corrections chief to be famous? Well, when Raemisch testified in front of a Senate subcommittee in Washington a few days after his Times essay appeared, he was “besieged by well-wishers,” according to one report. (In his testimony, Raemisch called solitary “overused, misused and abused.”) Interview requests piled up. Times columnist David Brooks wrote about Raemisch in a piece about solitary confinement, and then the Times dispatched a features writer to Colorado to write a profile that appeared in March.
“I kind of told my wife,” Raemisch said by phone last week from Colorado, “what’s this small-town kid from Madison doing in The New York Times?”
Conservative critics — particularly those who don’t sympathize with prisoners whose actions have led them to solitary confinement — have accused Raemisch of showboating, using what they call “a stunt” to promote himself.
His response? “I’m 61. Where am I going?”
Still, the publicity became frenzied enough that at one point Raemisch asked his boss, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, if he should go quiet. Hickenlooper said no. Raemisch was being accorded a rare public platform to talk about prison reform, and much of what was being said by others cast the state in a favorable light.
It’s not like Raemisch never got media attention during his long career in Wisconsin. I first met him some three decades ago, when I was researching a magazine story on drug cops in Madison. He squeezed in law school around his job with the joint city-county narcotics unit, and eventually became a prosecutor, first with Dane County, then the U.S. Attorney’s office in Madison. In 1990, Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Raemisch Dane County sheriff after Jerome Lacke resigned. Raemisch became secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in 2007.
In March 2013, Raemisch was working as a dean at Madison Area Technical College — having been replaced as prisons chief by Gov. Scott Walker — when he heard the news that Tom Clements, the head of Colorado prisons, had been fatally shot by a former inmate who knocked on the front door of Clements’ home. Raemisch was outraged. Clements had been an outspoken reformer. The man who killed him had been paroled directly to the streets after years in solitary confinement. Raemisch applied for and got the Colorado job. He started last July.
Raemisch pledged to fix the state’s broken parole system — Clements’ killer had removed his electronic bracelet days before the murder — and also take a hard look at whether solitary confinement’s time had passed.
It was in January, driving home to Colorado Springs one night from Denver, when Raemisch decided he needed to spend a night in solitary. “In a sense I thought I should walk the talk,” he said.
He called his deputy, Kellie Wasko, from the car, told her his idea, and asked what she thought.
There was a long silence. Finally Wasko said, “When would you want to do that?”
“How about Thursday evening?” Raemisch said. It was Tuesday.
Raemisch entered his 7-by-13 cell a little after 7 p.m. on Jan. 23. He’d slept little the night before, and was actually looking forward to getting some rest. It didn’t happen. “It wasn’t sensory deprivation,” he said. “It was sensory overload.” The noise was constant: shouts, blaring TVs, flushing toilets, intercom announcements of bed checks. By morning, Raemisch felt like he’d been there for days. He was released at 3 p.m.
Not long after, Raemisch wrote an account of the experience. Uncertain of its worth, he sent it to Max Potter, who works in communications for Hickenlooper.
“Can this go anywhere?” Raemisch asked.
“I think it can,” Potter said.
Of course, it eventually went to The New York Times, and from there, well, it’s still going.
“I’m not surprised by much anymore,” Raemisch said of all the attention. “This has surprised me.”