Prison activist plans new group for families.

When Gov. Bill Richardson announced, last month, the creation of a new prison-reform task force, prison-reform activist Tilda Sosaya quickly got on the phone to find out about serving on it.***image1***

She wasn't tapped and she thinks she knows why.

"There's no doubt at all that I'm an agitator," she says, while smoking a cigarette in her Pecos home office. "I'm not a well-behaved woman!"

Rejection isn't holding Sosaya down. She tells SFR that she's formed a new nonprofit advocacy group to press a cause that became very personal in 1997. That was when her then-19-year-old son, Alex, began a 10-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping convictions.

The new group, Prisoners and Families United, is the successor to the Committee on Prison Accountability, which Sosaya once led, but which eventually went under in 2002 amid internal divisions.

"I feel that prisoners and their families still need a voice," she says, adding that the "fundamental purpose" of the group will be to organize released prisoners and their families.

The Governor's Task Force on Prison Reform aims to "improve education and treatment programs within state institutions," according to the executive order authorizing it. The 21-member task force is expected to make recommendations to the governor by June 30.

Sosaya attended the task force's first meeting on March 20. While she thinks some progress could be achieved by expanding the state's commitment to prisoner education and successful reintegration programs, she believes other major issues won't be addressed at all.

"Private prisons is not on the agenda because that was the first rule that John Bigelow issued," she says, referring to the state's chief public defender and chairman of the task force. "So that means we're not going to even discuss the fact that prisoners are eating shit food provided by private contractors."

In an interview with SFR, Bigelow disputes Sosaya's characterization.

"What I said was that the task force will not be looking at the issue of whether private prisons are better than public prisons," he explains. "That's just not an issue we're attempting to resolve."

Bigelow notes that New Mexico's 46 percent prisoner recidivism rate, according to the Department of Corrections, is considerably lower than other states'.

"But I personally believe we can have a lower rate of recidivism in New Mexico than we currently have," he says. The task force, he adds, aims to evaluate different ways of easing inmates' re-entry into society.

Last July, Sosaya gave a presentation entitled "Barriers to Successful Re-Entry" at the Legislature's interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee meeting in Santa Rosa. She alleges that Department of ***image2***Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, also a member of the task force, tried to discredit her testimony by distributing copies of her son's disciplinary record to the legislators at the meeting.

"He personally passed it out," Sosaya charges, adding that she's thinking about filing a lawsuit over what she sees as an unlawful disclosure.

In a brief statement e-mailed to SFR, Williams, the longest-serving Corrections secretary in state history, doesn't dispute the main allegation.

"We presented relevant facts to the committee regarding Alex Sosaya's disciplinary history while in prison," Williams replies. The statement goes on to assert that such records are public.

Alex Sosaya, released last September, says the secretary's action amounted to "just another underhanded tactic" designed to deflect attention from the department's own failings.

"I don't think the department helps people," parolee Sosaya adds. "They don't give a fuck about people."

All of which feeds into his mother's criticism that the task force's membership doesn't have "enough dissent."

But First Judicial District Attorney Henry Valdez, also a member of the task force, disagrees.

"I don't think it's unbalanced at all," he says. And Valdez makes a point of criticizing advocates like Sosaya for wanting inordinate influence on such advisory bodies.

"I think sometimes when you're talking about some of these advocacy groups, they want things so they can control them," he says. "And that's not what this is about."

While Sosaya plans to attend the task force's public hearing scheduled for April 9, she doesn't have much faith in its ability to make a real difference in the lives of prisoners and their families.

That's where Prisoners and Families United will come in, she says.

"The only way to ensure that your loved one is getting the care they need is to bug [the Corrections Department]," Sosaya says. "And we'll be bugging them."