Hispanics spent more than twice as long locked in solitary confinement as whites at the Santa Fe County jail, on average, during a three-month stretch that ended Sept. 30, according to an SFR analysis of county figures.
The numbers also show that Hispanics were overrepresented—compared to their share of the population in the county—in the controversial jailing method, and whites were underrepresented.
The revelations come from the public's first detailed look at who the county is holding in solitary, defined in a recently enacted state law as "locked in a cell or similar living quarters in a correctional facility for 22 or more hours each day without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction."
For years, legislators and criminal justice reform advocates have sought to shed light on how solitary confinement is used in New Mexico's jails and prisons, as a growing number of human rights groups classify the tactic as a form of torture. New Mexico has a troubled history, with counties and the state settling numerous multi-million-dollar lawsuits over conditions in solitary—but the broader picture has remained murky.
This year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law restricting the practice and requiring quarterly reports from the state Corrections Department and county jails showing who, exactly, is being held in solitary.
Last week, public safety officials delivered their first required report to the Santa Fe County Commission. The brief, cordial, 10-minute presentation on Oct. 8 was unremarkable. But a closer look at the report raises questions.
The report signed by adult detention center Deputy Warden Robert Page indicates that 86 people were placed in and removed from solitary at the jail between July 1 and Sept. 30 with an average stay of 14 days. But for Hispanics, that number climbs to 18 days and, for whites, the average is seven days.
"This does confirm what we thought," Barron Jones, a policy adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, tells SFR. "Unfortunately, we know that racial disparities exist from start to finish in the criminal justice system. Now that we have some data confirming that, we can drill down into the numbers to understand why this is happening."
Jail officials refused to be interviewed for this story. And none of the five county commissioners responded to SFR's emails and telephone calls requesting interviews.
County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart says via email that "the race or ethnicity of inmates does not influence restrictive housing decisions. Restrictive housing is an individualized decision based upon the facts and circumstances of each case, including such things as the individual inmate's disciplinary history, the nature of the threat the inmate poses to the safety and security of the facility, and/or the initial and continuing need for protective custody."
The jail's report shows that the cause labeled "inmate is a threat to the safety and security of the facility" accounted for half the solitary population covered by the reporting period. "Protective custody/voluntary" was the next largest designation, with 30 inmates placed in solitary for that reason.
In addition to the racial disparities revealed in SFR's analysis, the report appears to fall short of meeting all of the new statute's requirements. For example, it does not provide a real-time look at who is still being held in "restricted housing," which is part of what lawmakers had hoped for when they passed the reform bill in April, says state Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation.
Santa Fe County's report simply shows the number of people who were either placed in solitary, removed from that designation or both during the three-month period.
"For all we know, an inmate could've been placed in restricted housing prior to July 1 and is still there," Maestas tells SFR. "While we appreciate the hard work the jails have put in to get ready [for] the new requirements, it'll take a few months for them to be perfect."
Jones of the ACLU says it's "deeply concerning" that the county's report "definitely doesn't comply with the spirit of the law."
"It would be such an easy fix, too," he adds. "Just add a sentence in the report that says: 'On this day, x number of people were being held.' It's a super-important component of the legislation that should allow us to track population trends over time. Unfortunately, we don't have that here."
County commissioners were less curious about the report than Jones and Maestas.
They did not ask probing questions about it when jail administrators presented their findings at a commission meeting last week but thanked the jail staff for producing the report.
District 5 Commissioner Ed Moreno did not know that reporting on solitary is now mandated by state law.
"I missed that one," Moreno said at the meeting.
District 3 Commissioner Rudy Garcia sympathized with jail staff, calling the report a "burden" that the Legislature put on the county.
Page said that nothing in the data seemed surprising or out of the ordinary. It's information that jail officials have "been aware of for a long time," he told the commission.