The numbers are eye-popping: A $15.5 million settlement in 2013 for a man left in solitary confinement by Doña Ana County jail staff for two years. Similar lawsuits have cost counties more than $20 million as of last year. And a lawsuit filed in February by five inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe seeks $50,000 each in damages.
New Mexico is an outlier among other states, including Colorado, Maine and Mississippi that have taken steps, small or large, to reform the use of solitary by limiting the time and reducing the reasons people can be placed there and allowing more time out of their cells. One prison in Mississippi introduced more programming for inmates in solitary, and found that violence at the prison went down.
Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, vetoed a bill that would have brought New Mexico in step with other states by reforming state and county uses of solitary for both adults and children. But Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque), a member of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, which met Tuesday in Albuquerque, thinks that the passage of the legislation is inevitable once a new governor takes office next year.
“I think the next governor will sign this, because the science is just clear it needs to happen,” Maestas said at the meeting. “The counties, the Department of Corrections, the prison staff, the ACLU, me, we need to be frank: Is this going to work from a practical standpoint? From a human rights and scientific standpoint?”
The bill vetoed by Martinez, which had bipartisan support, would have specifically barred staff from putting a person in solitary (or "restrictive housing") in most instances if they had a serious mental disability, were younger than 18, or pregnant. It also would have required jails and prisons to report to the Legislature every three months who it was keeping in solitary, the justifications, and for how long.
It would have also required private prisons, which house about half the inmates in the state, to report to the Legislature and the counties in which they operate the details of any settlements paid out to current or former inmates.
The topic of conversation at Tuesday's committee hearing was whether the bill passed by the Legislature last year should be amended in any way ahead of next year's legislative session. Committee members heard from representatives of the ACLU, the Corrections Department, CYFD and counties.
Steven Robert Allen, director of public policy at the ACLU, called last year's bill "an excellent first step" but said it could be stronger. He specifically pointed to reforms in Colorado, where no inmate can be held in solitary longer than 15 days. The United Nations considers more than 15 days in solitary to be torture.
Jerry Roark, deputy secretary of the Corrections Department, said the state's use of solitary has declined in recent years.
“When I started [in my role in 2012], 11 percent [of inmates] were in restrictive housing,” Roark said. “On Friday, we’re down to four and a half percent.” He added that the reason for the change was that the state now only puts “predatory” inmates in long-term solitary. “We feel very good about what we’ve done.”
As significant as the topic at hand was, none of the legislators present pressed Roark to back his numbers up. Throughout the two-hour discussion and subsequent public comment period, some of them thumbed their phones' screens. Few asked questions.
Senator Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque) was one of the few who did. He asked whether the language requiring that inmates receive mental health evaluations should be tightened, so that it specified the need for behavioral health specialists. He also suggested that any new bill should update its reporting requirements.
Another legislator, Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque), said she had heard from young people participating in the youth program La Plazita Institute, where teenagers described the traumatizing effects of being kept in solitary conditions.
Tamera Marcantel, deputy director for Juvenile Justice Facilities at CYFD, told the committee that incidents of individual room confinement for youth fell 88 percent from fiscal year 2016 to 2018, from 234 to 28. In addition, she said, the length of confinement fell from an average of 1 hour and 36 minutes to 37 minutes.
She also maintained that restrictive housing for young people was used for purposes of rehabilitation, not punishment.
But during the public comment period, one 16-year-old who said he had recently been released from the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center in Albuquerque after four and a half months, described being confined to a cell for 23 hours at a time for an entire week when the jail was on lockdown.
“I was in room by myself, like a 5-by-10 type room,” said the teen, who asked that his name not be used in this story for fear of retaliation. “Sometimes we would take our sheets and pillows and have to sleep on concrete if we were being bad. Being in a room all day, not getting no gym time, open recreation or anything, it makes you go crazy.”
Pablo Soto, a youth coordinator and organizer for La Plazita Institute, a grassroots organization featuring community programming that brought half a dozen young people to the hearing, told SFR that youth routinely describe punishing conditions.
“We want to see more psychological intake” happening at the juvenile jails, Soto said. “They need to find out more who the youth are.”
Whatever new bill may be introduced in the next legislative session, it's likely to have bipartisan support, just as the last one did. Rep. Jim Dines (R-Albuquerque) tells SFR he missed the hearing Tuesday, but says that all the "information" available about solitary confinement suggests "the process needs to be revised."
"I think it's been shown that's why there needs to be some reform in that area," Dines tells SFR by phone. "I think the biggest issue is just simply what was the length of time and basis for a person to be in there, and how effective has [solitary confinement] been?"