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Solitary in New Mexico: Part 2

Courtesy of Matthew Coyte

Jan Green isn’t sure of cell 135C’s exact dimensions at the Valencia County Detention Center. It was small.

“It was a shower stall, but I couldn’t use the shower,” she said. “It had the steel toilet and sink combination. It had a cement L-shaped bench and two drains. It had a steel door with a window that looked out into the walkway. “

She saw those objects every day all day during her months-long stints in solitary.

She slept on a mat on the floor. She remembers that it was cold in there, the lights were kept on around the clock, and she couldn’t get the water running properly. The out-of-use showerhead dripped. All the time.

“I remember being very ill,” she said. “I would pretend or whatever having a friend there for company.”

Green has been told she did at least one solid eight-month stretch in solitary confinement. But with her mental illness worsening, and the days and nights blurring together in the constant light, she said she’s not sure.

She had been arrested and charged with domestic violence. Overall, she spent two and a half years in county jails: Valencia, Cibola, Santa Fe. She was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Green and other former inmates from around the state are filing lawsuits against correctional facilities after doing time in segregation or solitary confinement.

She’s coped with mental illness for much of her life. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then later bipolar disorder. Green said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder from her time behind bars. She was 50 when she was arrested for the first time in her life and taken into custody. Before that day, she worked in tech support. She has four adult children.

Her mental illness became evident to jail staff immediately, and a note in her jail file recommended she see a psychiatrist right away, according to the complaint. The lawsuit states she never saw a psychiatrist or got medical attention for her mental health needs at the Valencia County jail.  "I really believe that I should have been in a hospital, rather than in jail,” Green said. “It was just a lose-lose situation. I think the system needs to be corrected on how to handle people with mental illness.”

Sometimes she’d be sent to another jail for treatment. Once stabilized, she’d be sent back to Valencia County, and often, back to solitary.

She deteriorated physically, too, according to the complaint, and was sometimes denied clean clothing, as well as tampons or pads. One of her socks “rotted into an open wound on her foot.”

Jail or Treatment Facility?

In an Albuquerque Journal article, Valencia County Detention Center Warden Joe Chavez disagreed with how Green’s time at the jail has been characterized. But, he said, the jail didn’t keep records of all of the times she was seen by medical professionals.

Chavez also echoed one fact all of the incarceration officials in this series of articles brought up: Jails and prisons have to deal with a number of mentally ill inmates because there are not enough mental health care facilities in New Mexico—or anywhere in the country.

There were once more mental health hospitals, but policy changes released many of the country’s patients into community treatment programs. By 1984, the shift was widely considered a failure, according to a New York Times article from that year.

 “Those individuals that are in crisis and commit a crime are immediately placed in correctional facilities,” said former Bernalillo County jail Chief Ramon Rustin. “We’ve become the de-facto mental health facility.” More than 40 percent of the inmates in the largest jail in New Mexico were dealing with mental health issues when KUNM interviewed Rustin in February. Half of the jail's medical budget goes to mental health treatment, Rustin estimated, which is about $6 million.

The mental health care budget at the Valencia County jail is around $250,000, according to KOB.

The Cases

Green’s lawsuit was settled in February for $1.6 million. As part of the agreement, the jail can’t keep someone in the shower stall cell for more than 48 hours. And inmates in segregation at the Valencia County jail will get a psychiatric review once a week.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Green’s lawyer, Matthew Coyte, also represented Stephen Slevin, who was jailed in the Doña Ana Detention Center for almost two years in segregation, though his DWI charges were eventually dropped. Slevin was awarded $22 million at trial, and settled on appeal for $15.5 million.

He represented Orlando Salas, who did time in segregation and was strapped into a restraint chair in the Curry County Juvenile Detention Facility when he was 15 years old. That case was settled for $450,000.

Coyte’s also got three more cases filed, and a few in the wings. He said he’ll keep pursuing these kinds of lawsuits until New Mexico reforms its use of segregation.

“I think it’s a barbaric and inhumane and unnecessary treatment of human beings,” he said. “I don’t think it does anybody any good. It’s not an effective form of incarceration.”

In the past, Coyte has been a public defender and done criminal defense work. He said somehow for years he just didn’t realize what a problem solitary was. “I had no idea that people were doing this in the facilities that my clients were in.” After figuring out what was going on, it became apparent that lawsuits were necessary to make a change.

People sometimes turned up at his Downtown Albuquerque office looking for help after being released, trying to explain the conditions in segregation, he said. “I suppose it’s easy to become sort of—I don’t know what the word is—you become used to these things, and you don’t particularly take note of them,” he said. “I was certainly guilty of that.”

But when Salas, an underage kid started talking about it, the story caught his ear. “It’s outrageous,” he said. “I can’t imagine why you would put a child—a 15-year-old—in a solitary cell for eight months. It was astounding.”

The widespread use of it in New Mexico caught Coyte off guard. “In all of these cases, the horror of it when you get into the details of how it affects an individual person is always somewhat surprising and shocking,” he said.

Fairly common mental illnesses make people more vulnerable to the toxic effects of this kind of punishment, he said.  “We’re going to look back and say, man we were crazy incarcerating so many people in a toxic environment with the excuse that we’re just trying to protect them or protect others.”

Reducing Segregation

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene studied medical records from about 244,000 incarcerations in the NYC jail system from 2010 through 2013. The researchers discovered that people who did time in solitary confinement—especially adolescents and folks with mental illness—had a far greater risk of self-harm. As a result, the New York City jail system eliminated solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness and started sending those prisoners to clinical settings when they violate rules and .  

Credit Wikimedia Commons

New York state also implemented further restrictions on solitary confinement this year: juvenile offenders must be allowed five hours of exercise or out-of-cell programming; pregnant women can’t be put into solitary; and people with developmental disabilities can only be put into solitary for 30 days.

The United Nations has been increasingly vocal in opposing the practice, indicating it should be used rarely and for short periods of time. 

But incarceration officials say there are reasons for using segregation. Joe Booker is the deputy secretary of operations for the New Mexico Department of Corrections. He said isolating prisoners can make a dangerous situation safer immediately. “Here’s what segregation is all about. This is paramount: Segregation is taking individuals away from the open population,” he said. “In other words, if they’re a threat, well, you isolate them. In effect, that does make it safer for that moment.”

But as for long-term security, he said he’s not so sure.  “Overall, in the big picture, whether it makes the prison safer, I can’t say.”

[New Mexico’s prison system is working to cut its high rate of segregation in half. Read more about that in the first part of this series.]

Booker added that providing inmates programs and skills gives them the ability to make a change, which prevents prisoners from acting out. People leave lockup without a degree or GED, without a job, without a connection to family, he said, and then they come back worse off than when they left, which leads to behavioral issues. “I know that from my experience from throughout systems I’ve worked in, you can’t reduce recidivism if you can’t give them that sense of hope that they can do something in the community.”

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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