To be clear, there were several tremendously compassionate and engaged employees with whom I interacted at NMWCF, as was usually the case when I visited other detention facilities across the US conducting interviews and research for my book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.
But at NMWCF, as elsewhere, I encountered numerous correctional officers whose disdain for the incarcerated women was palpable, and whose preferred method of communication seemed to revolve around commands and directives barked at high volume. (By contrast, the regular reliance on physical brutality I witnessed in California, in the world’s largest women’s prison complex, didn’t seem to be as endemic to NMWCF’s environment.)
I met prisoners who had seized on every opportunity possible to access the facility’s limited education programs, vocational training and drug addiction recovery. I had hushed conversations with women who made it abundantly clear drugs weren’t hard to find in prison, including heroin, which women would inject with homemade “needles” made of pens and other supplies. The rate of hepatitis C infection in New Mexico’s state prisons is indicative of how prevalent injection drug use is both before and during a prisoner’s incarceration: Nearly 30 percent of prisoners are believed to be infected, and most are untreated.
In the crowded receiving/evaluation unit, a few women pulled me to the side to show me huge, oozing wounds—what appeared to be the common lesions associated with the often deadly, antibiotic-resistant form of staph infection known as MRSA. These women told me they had been told they had nothing more than a “bug bite.” I sat with one group of Native women during lunch who were initially embarrassed to be seen eating the “food” on their plates, which consisted of some kind of unidentifiable beige mash and the palest, limpest slice of tomato I had ever seen in my life. Once they explained that they didn’t have a choice about the kind of food they were eating, they marveled at the fact that there was a “fresh” vegetable on the plate because they hadn’t seen one in months.
I saw a few women who definitely seemed to enjoy their roles as the bullies of their units, and I saw even more women with far-off, pained expressions in their eyes who didn’t say a word.
The hardest part of my prison tour was, as I had expected, the walk through NMWCF’s solitary confinement unit. It was as bleak and depressing as any I had ever seen. Some of the women rambled incoherently, while others made an effort to come talk to me through the tiny food slots, telling me of their attempts to stay sane in their tiny, dingy cells where the lights never went off, recreation consisted of running around in a “dog cage” a few times a week and a short shower was permitted only while cuffed inside the shower unit—every two or three days.
But the biggest surprise came at the tail end of a long day, when I was led past the prison’s secure “Crossings” unit and asked to go inside.