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Solitary Confinement in New Mexico: Part 3


NatauraPowdrell remembers one inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center who refused to take his meds. When the jail’s mental health staff tried to talk about it, he explained he didn’t want to become stable. Because then he’d be released from jail.

Then, he knew from experience, he would run through the 30-day supply of medication that the jail provides to exiting inmates. He would have a psychotic break. And he’d go find heroin so he could get comfortable with the voices in his head.

“It’s a catch 22 for him,” Powdrell, spokesperson for MDC, explained. “There needs to be somewhere between jail and the street that these people can get the appropriate help.”

The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center is the 39th biggest jail in the country, according to its website, and MDC is considered a mega jail. More than 40,000 inmates go through its doors each year, and it houses about 2,500 inmates at a time.

There are six psychiatrists on staff, as well as nurses, case workers and discharge planners. ”We’re the ones that discover they have a mental illness and put them in a program and get them medication,” ex-Chief Ramon Rustin said. Half of the jail’s $12 million medical budget goes to mental health issues, he added.

More than one-third of inmates there take psychotropic medication to control mental illness, he said. Rustin stepped down in early April. News of his replacement has not yet been announced.

Frank Maestas, assistant chief of security at MDC, said some inmates don’t have severe charges, but if the state’s mental hospital is full and not taking any long-term patients, they get sent to the Bernalillo County jail. “You can ask any law enforcement official about dealing with the mentally ill. They’ll say, send them to the biggest mental hospital in New Mexico, which is us. Because that’s where they get the best care.”


Inside the Box,” a report by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, examines the high use of solitary confinement or segregation in the state. The report makes five recommendations, including that New Mexico ban the practice of isolating mentally ill prisoners, which studies show exacerbates mental illness.

Roy Hartman, captain of the segregation unit at MDC, said segregation is only used on mentally ill inmates during active violent stages. When we spoke in January, he estimated there were 200 inmates in segregation that day spread over six pods (clusters of 32 cells with a visiting room, classroom, showers, etc.).

Segregated inmates are supposed to be allowed one hour per day outside of their cells, but a late-April article in the Albuquerque Journal indicates they might not be getting that hour if corrections officers perceive misbehavior.

MDC is part of a two-decade lawsuit regarding its over-crowding issues, which are said to create unconstitutional conditions in the jail. The lawsuit and the overcrowding add considerable cost burden to the jail.  So do mentally ill inmates. So does segregation, which requires a higher officer-to-inmate ratio.

Hartman said inmates are put into segregation out of concern for the safety of other inmates and jail staff. Dangerous inmates who assault others multiple times can end up in administrative segregation, which means that’s where they’ll do the rest of their time.

  Mentally ill inmates are given a lot of interaction, allowed to be in group settings, and they’re seen by psychiatrists, Powdrell said. “They’re getting that human contact, that constant interaction, and that medical treatment all the time. So it’s not like they’re just sitting idle in isolation.”

Another criticism in “Inside the Box”—New Mexico’s jails and prisons aren’t transparent about when and why someone is put into isolation.

Hartman said inmates are tracked during their time at MCD, including time spent in and out of their cells, and those records are kept electronically. “If an individual ever came to seg, I can tell you what day of the week he was there. I can tell you whether he came out of his cell or not.”

Hartman explained the process of putting someone in seg, pointing out that there are many steps, and such decisions aren’t made by one jail staffer alone. Additionally, on the way to seg, the inmate is seen by a medical provider and mental health provider.

Credit From "Inside the Box"

  “One big thing that everybody needs to realize, too: Inmates don’t want to be in segregation. The inmates will do and say just about anything and everything they can to get out of segregation,” Hartman said. “Anytime you’re out of your cell in segregation, you have that CO standing over you. Or you’re restrained, or you’re placed in an outdoor enclosure.”

Once the inmate is in segregation, an officer will look over the case and determine if a hearing should be set. If there is a hearing, the inmate gets to advocate for himself or herself.  The chief of security reviews the hearing officer’s ruling, and decides whether the inmate will get credit for time served or spend more time in isolation.

Hartman said he has to ask himself whether he’s putting other people in MDC at risk by allowing someone back into the general population. “I mean if this guy is continuously being disruptive, he’s being combative, he’s doing the little things that the inmates do in seg, he’s not ready for general population,” he said. “You have individuals that get mad over juice, they get mad over milk, and they go off. They go off big time. And the individuals in segregation, you know, they like to fight.”

Segregation and general population are the only options in a county jail, Hartman added—it’s not like prison where inmates are working on good behavior so they can leave prison early. “Until the individual is sentenced or adjudicated, we have no control over when they get out of jail or if they go to prison.” The state’s prison system, on the other hand, has a variety of facilities with different levels of security, and it can spread out its violent population, Hartman explained.

“I don’t think the general public understands the violence that we deal with,” he said. “New Mexico’s got a very high violent crime rate. That violence does spill over into the jail. They’re still actively involved in violent behavior.”

Looking Forward

Over the course of this three part series on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico, a few things become evident. First, prison officials and human rights advocates agree that the use of segregation should be decreased to help lower recidivism rates and cut down on costs. Second, the jails and prisons—especially the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center—are handling a population they weren’t designed to handle: people coping with mental illness.

So what does the next year look like? The ACLU and New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty might pursue legislation to demand greater transparency about the use of segregation in the next legislative session. Lawyer Matthew Coyte has several more cases filed to demand restitution for mentally ill clients who say they were mistreated or tortured by being kept in solitary confinement. And MDC will continue to send mentally ill inmates through a revolving door of stabilization and re-stabilization, with some pit stops in segregation along the way.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, said Tim Gardner of Disability Rights New Mexico, and he knows the situation is complex. “Most people who go into the jail business didn’t do so because they wanted to be the primary mental health treatment facility in their county, and they often don’t know how to take on that role.”

Former MDC Chief Rustin echoed that statement about two months before he stepped down. “Mental health treatment puts a strain on MDC. This isn’t a mental health facility,” he said. “Technically, it’s a jail for people that committed crimes.”

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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