By Alan Bean
It now appears that Evan Spencer Ebel, recently paroled from a Colorado prison, murdered Nate Leon, a pizza delivery man, then, last Tuesday evening, went to the front door of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements a shot him dead.
Two days later, Ebel was pulled over in Wise County, Texas by officers who thought he looked suspicious. Ebel started shooting and led officers on a 100 mile per hour chase before wrecking the car. He was taken to the hospital with a head wound and died shortly after arrival.
Ballistics tests link the gun Ebel fired at police officers in Texas to shells recovered at the scene of the Colorado murders. Dominos Pizza paraphernalia was recovered from the black Cadillac Ebel was driving when he died in Texas.
The details remain murky, but Ebel was clearly a member of a white supremacist Colorado prison gang called the 211s. Tom Clements, the murdered prisons chief, was involved in the decision to dilute the strength of the 211s by transferring several of their key members held in a Buena Vista prison to other Colorado prisons. Evidence suggests that the recently-paroled Ebel was acting as a soldier for the 211s. What brought him to Texas remains uncertain; I suppose he had to run somewhere.
According to reports
A darkly ironic connection emerged among Ebel, Clements and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper when the governor confirmed Friday he was a longtime friend of Ebel’s father, attorney Jack Ebel.
At a hearing before state lawmakers two years ago, Jack Ebel testified that long stretches in solitary confinement had reduced his son to an emotional shambles. Governor Hickenlooper hired Tom Clements to head the prison system partly because he was an outspoken critic of over-dependence on solitary confinement who, since starting his work in Colorado, has significantly reduced the state’s reliance on solitary as a disciplinary measure.
Did the Colorado prison system turn Even Spencer Ebel into a deranged killing machine?
That would be a crude over-simplification. The reports I have read suggest that Ebel was a deeply troubled young man long before he landed in prison. He once robbed a group of friends at gunpoint at a football party. Later, he shot himself on two separate occasions. His latest stretch in prison was for punching a prison guard and it seems that solitary confinement was the system’s response to that episode.
Some people need to be locked up for their own good as much as for public safety reasons. What do you do with a guy like Ebel? You can send him to prison, but is that really an answer? Ninety-eight percent of inmates are eventually released. And this time, when Evan Spencer Ebel re-entered society it was as a dedicated member of a white supremacist gang. Prison didn’t cause Ebel’s mental issues, but his father is probably right to suggest that solitary confinement contributed to Ebel’s emotional problems.
No one can withstand extended stretches of solitary confinement without deteriorating emotionally and psychologically. Subject an inmate who suffers from mental illness to such treatment and the results are predictable.
And prison almost certainly turned Ebel into a violent white supremacist. He didn’t shoot Tom Clements over a personal beef; Clements was working hard to diminish the use of solitary in Colorado prisons. It is likely that Ebel shot Clements because his 211 buddies told him to. They had a beef with Clements because he had diluted their power and control.
Is there a takeaway from this distressing drama? We will have a better perspective a few months down the road. But those who believe that prison makes society safer should take a lesson from what happened to Evan Spencer Ebel. The young man needed to be restrained in some form. But the American prison system has evolved into a form of cruel and unusual punishment that makes bad people worse. Ebel was a criminal because he was mentally ill. Prison isn’t designed to address mental issues and almost always makes them far worse.
What percentage of the prison population offended due to mental illness and/or addiction issues? I don’t have an answer to that question, but my gut tells me it’s at least fifty percent. If addiction and mental illness are the problems we’re dealing with, prison is a bizarre solution.