The New Mexico Corrections Department appears to have made a silent U-turn on solitary confinement in its prisons – and voluntarily curtailed the use of the controversial practice after years of opposing any legislation that placed even conservative restrictions on its ability to keep inmates isolated .
The department stopped placing women in solitary confinement a year ago and limited all solitary confinement to 30 days from July, department spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email last week.
The postponement comes after correctional officials in recent years opposed solitary confinement regulation, calling it a critical tool in maintaining control in prisons.
The news surprised civil rights activists campaigning in 2019 to pass a law banning the department from holding pregnant women, teenagers and the mentally ill in solitary confinement, and urging New Mexico prisons and jails to issue quarterly reports that state use the train.
Attorney Matthew Coyte – who has advocated restrictions on solitary confinement for years and secured massive settlements from government agencies on behalf of clients in solitary confinement – said he didn’t hear about the change until The New Mexican asked him about it last week.
“We have to believe them, I think, until we see something else,” said Coyte. “It would be great if it were true … then we should be happy. If this is a turnaround in politics … then it’s a good one.
The director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, Steven Allen, who had campaigned for years to reform solitary confinement in his previous post as Policy Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, was in doubt when he spoke about the new protocol was informed.
“I would be surprised if that were true,” Allen wrote in an email, adding that his group had spoken to inmates who said they had been held in solitary confinement for more than 30 days in the past six months.
“As far as I can tell [the department’s] Guidelines on their website indicate that they are still allowed to hold people in solitary confinement for more than 30 days straight, and I can’t find anything to suggest they are no longer allowed to hold women in solitary confinement, “he wrote.
Harrison said Thursday the new practice was more of a guideline than a guideline – one passed down by new adult prison director Gary Maciel.
He added the department still reserves the right to use solitary confinement – officially known as restrictive accommodation – for longer than 30 days and with female inmates when necessary.
Harrison wrote that the goal of the proofreading department was “to reduce usage”.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement – generally defined as isolating an inmate in their cell without significant contact with others for 22 hours or more per day – has devastating effects on mental health.
Far from just making people lonely, Psychology Today reported in 2019, “Solitary confinement as a punishment is more of a form of torture” that can exacerbate physical and mental health problems, cause hallucinations and violent outbursts, and lead to self-harm or suicide.
Studies have shown that it can even cause physical changes in the brain, reducing the size of the part of the organ that plays an important role in learning and memory.
According to the latest report, the division, which has approximately 6,000 inmates in 10 prisons, used solitary confinement 885 times during the three-month reporting period.
The report – which appears to provide data between late June and late September, but also includes entries for people who were in solitary confinement in February, April, and May – says that women were not in solitary confinement for more than 30 days in the 1990s. Days was used period covers.
About 56 percent of the time [502 times], it was used on inmates whose behavior or actions threatened the safety of others. About 43 percent of the time [383 times], it was used on prisoners waiting for a transfer check or a bed.
This represents a shift from the first round of reporting in late 2019, when the department’s reports identified those awaiting trial and those pending made up the majority of the inmates in solitary confinement. Third came prisoners with threatening behavior.
Coyte wrote that he didn’t think the department’s reports could be trusted.
“I know this report is largely fictitious because I know of many people who are currently in solitary confinement but whose biographical information is not on this list,” Coyte wrote in an email on the latest report.
Coyte and others have doubts about the correctional department’s reporting, which may suggest the agency is abiding by the letter of the 2019 law, but is in fact going against its spirit.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all way that data comes in, and the systems are inherently designed to hide data rather than share it,” Allen said.
Barron Jones, a senior strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the organization began analyzing the reports in 2019 to create a public database and gather information that would feed into potential laws to tighten control over solitary confinement would.
However, it was difficult to draw conclusions from it, he said.
“If we look at the information, we saw big problems in the reports from the start,” he said. “Just trying to upload the information to the database in some way was a challenge, to say the least.”
The law requires all state and county correctional facilities to report the age, gender, and ethnicity of each inmate who has been held in solitary confinement during a three-month reporting period, and the reasons for the imposition of restricted placement. According to the law, “every correctional facility” must prepare a report.
However, Jones said the department chose to publish a system-wide report instead of data for each prison. Because the first round of reporting resulted in a lawsuit from a man who had been in solitary confinement for nearly a year, the department removed the names from the reports – making it almost impossible to track people or review the records.
Coyte said in a telephone interview that the reports were much more useful when they had people’s names on them.
“Then when a customer’s family tells you they are in solitary confinement, at least look them up to see if they are telling the truth,” he said. “They purposely hid those names so we wouldn’t find out. It’s very annoying.”
Justice Department spokesman Harrison defended the reports in an email recently.
“What I can tell you is that the reports that we publish online and send to the Legislative Library every quarter include age, gender, ethnicity, reason for detention and the date of detention for each inmate in a legally mandated restrictive regime Housing included, “he wrote. “Unique identifiers such as names are not required and are not part of the reports for security reasons.”
New Mexico’s use of solitary confinement has long been a moving target.
The state ranked fourth in the nation when it came to the use of solitary confinement, according to a report released by the ACLU state branch in March 2019.
The report said the state routinely underreported its use, in part because it lacks a clear definition of “individual” and instead used “multiple and ever-changing terms” to refer to the practice.
For example, medical segregated inmates and those living in high security facilities often spend 22 hours or more alone in their cells, but are not always included in the restrictive housing census.
“I’m sure the New Mexico Department of Corrections has kept people in solitary confinement for more than 30 days,” said Jones. “They choose what they list and they adjust the definition to their guidelines, I believe, to get around the rules.”
According to the study, around 4 percent of the 7,000 prisoners at the time were held in solitary confinement in September 2019. But after examining the daily population numbers obtained through public filing requests, the ACLU researchers calculated more than double the number of prisoners in solitary confinement at the time.
Harrison has not provided an updated estimate of the percentage of state inmates held in solitary confinement.