KUNM

Limits On Solitary Confinement Head To The Governor

Mar 25, 2019

State lawmakers just passed restrictions on solitary confinement, the first of their kind in the state. If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs them into law, New Mexico prisons and jails will have rules about who they can isolate. 

While Kelly Garcia Chavez was in prison for almost two decades, she estimates she did eight years in solitary. "The only human contact you have is the people in the pod, but the only communication you have is through a wall or through a vent," she said at a recent news conference.

Her solitary cell was the size of a parking space for a compact car, she said. "I am mentally tormented by the screams in my head at night to this day."

If the bill becomes law, it would be illegal to put someone younger than 18 or someone who’s pregnant into solitary. And there would be new limitations on isolating people who’ve been diagnosed with what the bill calls mental disabilities.

People don't generally know about this human rights issue, said lawyer Matthew Coyte. He's been pushing for these restrictions for years. During the 2019 session time limits—how many days in a row or how many days per year someone can be in solitary—were gutted from the legislation. Coyte said it was unpleasant compromise.

"So the people that I sue on behalf of have been in solitary for months and months at a time," he said. "They’re often covered in feces. They’re defecating into holes in the floor of their cells. Often they’re naked. It’s appalling."

That’s from an interview the last time he pushed for legal limits in 2017 when then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed them. Both bills—the one Martinez axed two years ago and the one that passed this year—force jails and prisons to start reporting who’s in solitary, for how long, and why.

"Out of sight, out of mind, right?" he said. "If you keep people in solitary and there’s no mechanism for reporting it, we really have no idea of the scale of the problem."

The state’s prison system under-reports its use of solitary by almost half, according to a study by University of New Mexico researchers. 

New Mexico is behind the times, said Leon Howard, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. "Here, one in 10 inmates behind the walls are in conditions of solitary confinement," he said, "whereas other states only use solitary confinement as a last resort."

A spokesperson for the governor said in an emailed statement that Lujan Grisham agrees that solitary should only be used in extreme circumstances and is dismayed it has become so normalized, calling the practice "flatly inhumane."

Corrections Department officials said they’re unsure how the researchers concluded that the state is under-reporting the number of people in solitary.