by Kevin W. Bliss
In April 2019, newly elected New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 364, which limits the use of solitary confinement for certain prisoners housed in New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) facilities and requires more transparency when solitary is used.
Former NMCD Secretary Gregg Marcantel had insisted that solitary confinement – a practice defined as detention in a cell for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful and sustained human interaction – was a needed tool to safely control prisoners. Placement in segregation could be for disciplinary, administrative or medical reasons, as well as for the prisoner’s own protection, with no limit on the amount of time he or she could be held.
Due to these differing classifications and a lack of reporting requirements, reliable data on the NMCD’s use of solitary confinement was scarce. The agency cited statistics on the proportion of the prison population held in solitary that varied from 4% to 16% depending on who asked, according to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (CLP) and the state chapter of the ACLU, which accused prison officials of misreporting the data.
The NMCD said its reliance on solitary confinement had been reduced with the creation of separate housing units for sex offenders and former law enforcement officers. But those still held in isolation were at risk of serious adverse effects, according to Dr. Bianca McDermott, who once headed the NMCD’s Behavioral Health Bureau.
“If a prisoner has a pre-existing mental illness the risks are that much higher,” she said. “I have personally seen inmates kept in solitary confinement in New Mexico prison for years. The worst outcome, of course, is suicide. Other inmates seem to manifest extreme rage, paranoia and impulsivity. Others become lethargic, passive, and seem to have lost social skills and coping mechanisms.”
Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney who has sued the state’s prison system over deaths in solitary confinement, said holding prisoners in isolation is more costly and only worsens prisoners’ mental conditions, affecting public safety in the long run after those prisoners are released.
“We have been manufacturing mental illness for years with this form of incarceration. You don’t want people who are incarcerated to come out worse,” he stated.
CLP and the ACLU drew attention to the use of solitary in New Mexico in a 2013 report titled “Inside the Box,” using Stephen Slevin’s story to illustrate just how cruel, overused and unnecessary solitary confinement was in the state’s prisons and jails.
In spite of his history of mental illness, Slevin was held in a small, padded cell at the Doña Ana County Detention Center not long after he was arrested. Two years later, having never been tried for the charges for which he was jailed, Slevin emerged, his body riddled with bedsores and fungus, his toenails curled under his toes. He had pulled one of his own teeth after being denied dental care, and his mental illness had worsened. In 2012, a jury awarded Slevin a $22 million judgment for the conditions he was forced to endure. The county appealed and ultimately settled for $15 million. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.20].
“Holding people for months in solitary confinement is contrary to any notion of rehabilitation or reintegration,” noted Gail Evans, CLP’s legal director. “The evidence is clear that isolation results in cognitive deterioration, which can be irreversible, meaning that our prisons and jails are inflicting brain damage on our citizens.”
According to the CLP and ACLU report, up to 16% of New Mexico prisoners – including roughly 6,700 in the state’s 11 prisons and thousands more in 29 county jails – were held in solitary confinement in 2013. At Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Detention Center alone, more than 300 prisoners were in solitary confinement at any given time. At least 25% of state prisoners in solitary – a conservative estimate, according to the report – suffered from serious mental illness. Moreover, the average length of stay for NMCD prisoners held in Levels V and VI (the state’s “supermax”) was over 1,070 days, or nearly three years.
These figures ranked New Mexico among the worst abusers of solitary confinement in the country, leading the NMCD to ask the Vera Institute of Justice to assess its use of solitary in state prisons and recommend changes.
“We got in the habit of making it too easy to lock down prisoners,” said Jerry Roark, NMCD’s Director of Adult Prisons. “Right now, we have way too many non-predatory prisoners in segregation. We need to change that, and we’re working on it.”
Since 95% of state prisoners held in solitary will eventually be released, the CLP and ACLU report noted that “how these prisoners are treated while detained plays a substantial role in determining how they will adjust to public life and whether or not they re-engage in criminal activity once released. Those who have experienced extreme solitary confinement, and especially those with mental illness, re-enter society ill-equipped to handle the ‘free world’ in a healthy, constructive way.”
Coyte, the civil rights attorney, said mentally ill detainees in the state’s county jails almost always ended up in solitary confinement because they were transferred for “safe-keeping” to state prisons where they were prevented from mixing with convicted prisoners. That’s what happened to Keith Kosirog, a pretrial detainee deemed mentally unfit to stand trial after his arrest in early 2018. Transferred for safe-keeping to a state prison, he hanged himself in an isolation cell on December 2, 2018.
“By trying to fix the problem,” Coyte said, “they’ve made it worse.”
The same day that Kosirog committed suicide, another prisoner, Adonus Encinias, who was held in solitary due to a medical condition, also killed himself. The two suicides provided the impetus for the new law signed by Governor Grisham; a similar bill had passed the state legislature in 2017 but was vetoed by then-Governor Susana Martinez.
State law now restricts the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and prisoners with mental illnesses. It also requires regular reporting of its use by the NMCD, and further requires private prisons operating in the state to disclose settlements in lawsuits filed by prisoners.
“New Mexico has had a troubled history,” said ACLU Public Policy Director Steven Robert Allen, referring to the state’s use of solitary confinement. “This bill might not go as far as we would like in reforming this problematic practice,” he added, “but it’s an important step in the right direction.”
Sources: santafenewmexican.com; abqjournal.com; kob.com; nmindepth.com; theappeal.org; “Inside the Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico’s Prisons and Jails,” by the ACLU of New Mexico and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (Oct. 2013)
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