Solitary confinement may be at the heart of a tragic irony in the death of Tom Clements. The reform-minded Colorado prisons chief had expressed concern about the dangerous damage caused by prolonged prison isolation, and the risks of releasing prisoners directly from solitary onto the streets. Now, emerging evidence suggests that the main suspect in Clements’ murder, who was released from solitary confinement just two months earlier, may have suffered from precisely that kind of damage.
Evan Spencer Ebel was killed in a shootout with Texas police last Thursday, two days after Clements was shot to death on the doorstep of his Colorado Springs home. Prior to his release from prison on January 28, Ebel had served eight years for several armed robberies. Most of that time was spent in extreme isolation, locked down 23 hours a day in a small cell.
Ebel’s prison records, obtained by the Associated Press, show that he was placed in solitary because of ”28 different violations he racked up during his time behind bars.” According to the AP, “He was disciplined for smearing feces on his cell wall, punching a fellow inmate and punching a guard in 2006. Prison documents say Ebel also threatened to kill that guard and their family. That attack earned him another felony conviction.”
As early as a year ago, Evan Ebel’s father, Jack Ebel, testified before a committee of the Colorado State Legislature that after years in solitary, his son had trouble communicating during visits. ”Even though he’s well-read and he’s a good conversationalist and gentle — he started out that way, what I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious. So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-half before we can actually talk,” Jack Ebel told legislators. He was speaking in favor of a bill that would have more closely monitored the mental health of individuals in solitary, and required that they spend some time in the general population before their release from prison. (The bill was voted down.)
The idea that Ebel’s alleged violent acts were triggered in part by his years of solitary confinement (and perhaps not, as earlier suspected, by his association with a white power prison gang) was bolstered earlier this week by evidence obtained by reporter Susan Greene. In an article in the Colorado Independent, Greene writes:
In the weeks before his death, Evan Ebel, suspected killer of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, had broken ties with white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew and was debilitated by the transition from prolonged isolation to social contact, according to a friend and former fellow inmate.
In a series of interviews conducted with The Colorado Independent, parolee Ryan Pettigrew dismissed widespread media speculation that Ebel shot Clements as part of an orchestrated 211 Crew “gang hit.” He said that, over the course of the last few weeks, Ebel was growing increasingly agitated in his adjustment to life outside of prison and beyond the tiny “administrative segregation” cells in which he spent years deprived of regular human contact. “Trust me, this was no gang hit. This was about what was haunting Evan Ebel,” Pettigrew says. “Clements’ name never came up.”