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Solitary Confinement in New Mexico: Part I

Screenshot from "Orange is the New Black"

The hole. That’s what they call it on television. It’s the mind-shattering pit fictional prisoners will do anything to avoid.

In real life, human rights advocates say New Mexico needs to cut back on using solitary confinement as a punishment method—especially for people coping with mental illnesses. Prison officials agree that it should be used less often, though most take issue with the way it’s portrayed in prison dramas.

Nataura Powdrell, spokesperson for the Bernalillo County jail, said there’s a public perception problem: “A lot of people think it’s like the movies, that there’s a hole, and we throw them in the hole. There’s no light, and they come out and they look like Jesus. They’ve got a big beard, and they’ve got long hair.”

Cells today have full glass fronts at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Medical staff members check in on segregated inmates every day, and an officer looks in every 30 minutes to make sure they’re OK. Plus, they’re out of their cells for a little more than an hour every day.

But that means there are 23 hours a day spent inside the cells, advocates point out.

Incarceration facilities in New Mexico see a difference between segregation and what other folks call solitary confinement. Corrections Department Deputy Secretary Joe Booker has worked in the field for 37 years. He said in segregation, the inmate is sometimes allowed to participate in activities, or to have a TV, radio and newspaper. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, unruly prisoners were stuck in a tiny cell, Booker said, and that was it. That was The Hole.

People opposing solitary confinement are not making that distinction. Solitary Watch, an advocacy project, lists the many names for solitary confinement, and includes “segregation” on the list.

There’s a lot of variation around New Mexico in the size and shape of cells used for segregation, and in the second part of this series, you’ll hear from a jail inmate who did her time in a converted shower.

Regardless of the size and shape of the cell, it’s isolation that’s really the problem, according to most research on psychological fallout.

Mental Health

An article published by the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, states that isolation can be “as clinically distressing as physical torture.” Solitary worsens certain symptoms: anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts and psychosis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research on the damaging effect of isolation.

An October report from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union said the state “urgently needs to reform the practice of solitary confinement in its prisons and jails.” They offer suggestions for five significant reforms:

1)   Increase transparency and oversight of the use of solitary confinement

2)   Limit the length of solitary confinement to no more than 30 days

3)   Mandate that all prisoners are provided with mental, physical and social stimulation

4)   Ban the use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill

5)   Ban the use of solitary confinement on children

Tim Gardner of Disability Rights New Mexico said segregation might seem like an easy way to deal with a problematic inmate, but there are long-term consequences. “It’s really dangerous for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, or mental health conditions that they develop while in solitary confinement.”

Credit "Inside the Box," a report by the ACLU and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
Stephen Slevin before and after solitary confinement

 Sometimes inmates spend months—even years—in isolation. Stephen Slevin was awarded $22 million after he was put into segregation for nearly two years in the Doña Ana County Detention Center. He was arrested in 2005 and charged with DWI. He was thrown into a tiny seg cell, where he spent 22 months without ever seeing a judge. The DWI charges against him were eventually dropped.

According to the lawsuit, he had a mental illness when he was put in solitary confinement. He deteriorated physically and mentally over those years alone, and even had to pull out one of his own rotting teeth.  

Gardner said one of the big problems with the system is that jails and prisons have become the primary treatment centers for mental illness in New Mexico and elsewhere. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It's evidence of a failure in our community-based mental health treatment system.”

Bernalillo County jail’s former chief Ramon Rustin confirmed that MDC is the biggest mental health care provider in the state and said 41 percent of inmates were taking psychotropic medications.

Gardner said he understands that jails are overwhelmed with mentally ill inmates, and people with such illnesses are disruptive in the pods. “What we need is a broader view of the danger that we are taking on by making jails the primary treatment centers for mental illness,” he said. “Solitary confinement becomes the most dangerous use of the jails for people with mental illness.”

Recidivism and Transparency

New Mexico sees higher-than-average rates of both segregation and recidivism. The Department of Corrections estimates that about 10 percent of the state’s prisoners are in segregation. Nationally, that number is 7 percent. Now consider that about half of the people who are arrested will be back behind bars within five years in New Mexico, according to a Legislative Finance Committee report issued in July.

Credit Skarz via Wikimedia Commons
The state penitentiary is a maximum security prison with about 800 inmates. It houses Level VI prisoners, who are segregated from other inmates.

Booker sees a connection between those two high stats.

“We’re segregating inmates that probably should be in programs. That’s why the recidivism rate in New Mexico is one of the highest in the country,” he said. We’re providing more security but less programming.”

The report points out that about 95 percent of prisoners eventually leave their cells and try to make a return to life on the outside: “Those who have experienced extreme solitary confinement, and especially those with mental illness, re-enter society ill-equipped to handle the ‘free world’ in a healthy, constructive way.”

Questions about the practicality, expense and human rights issues surrounding solitary confinement are in the spotlight nationally. In Colorado, lawmakers are considering a measure that forbids using solitary confinement to punish prisoners with serious mental illnesses. And a Congressional hearing was held earlier this year to reduce use of the practice nationwide. 

It costs about three times as much to keep a prisoner in solitary confinement than to allow them into general population, according to an NPR report by Carrie Johnson.

The state’s Corrections Department is aiming to cut its number—10 percent—in half. But, Booker added, “if we just decrease it at all, that’s a good standard for us.”

First and foremost, said the ACLU’s Steve Allen, state prisons and county jails need to report who’s in solitary, how many people are in solitary, and how long they’ve been there. That information was hard to get, especially from county jails, he said. “We, as a state, have to figure out how to have more transparency around the use of solitary confinement,” he said. “It really stood out as the first thing we need to fix.”

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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