ACLU Challenges Inhumane Treatment at New Mexico’s Supermax (2002)

Monday, October 21, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE– Today, cooperating attorneys working for the New Mexico chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of six prisoners in the New Mexico Department of Corrections regarding the State’s “Supermax” prison facilities.  The case is a proposed class action on behalf of all prisoners held in “Special Control Facilities” operated at the Santa Fe and Las Cruces state prisons.

The defendants are the New Mexico Department of Corrections, the wardens of the prisons at which the Special Control Facilities are operating, other corrections officials and former Corrections Secretary Rob Perry.  The suit alleges that the Special Control Facilities are just the latest in a series of unconstitutional initiatives initiated during the past few years by the Corrections Department.

The Supermax system is rife with inhumane conditions.  For example, when prisoners enter the system they are automatically confined to their cells all but six hours each week.  The confinement is not a result of a prisoner’s misbehavior but, instead, part of the Supermax’s psychological “education” program that prohibits family visitation, prison work assignments, education services, personal reading matter, radio and television and limits the inmate to possessing three letters, three photographs and using no more than five sheets of writing paper per week.
Prisoners are only released out of their cells five times per week for an hour in an indoor “exercise cell” and ten minute showers five times per week.

All this is part of the prison’s so called “Cognitive Restructuring” program.  The lawsuit alleges that the New Mexico program is unique in America because it combines the highly restrictive features of a “Supermax” prison with this program of behavioral change.  Prison authorities state that cognitive restructuring is designed to change or “correct” the thinking of inmates through the provision of lessons provided to the prisoners, followed by tests to determine whether the prisoner has learned the lesson.  Over a period of at least a year, the prisoners can move from being locked into their cells twenty-three hours a day through a number of “steps” and “levels” of gradually improving living conditions and opportunities to leave the cell. The program is not administered by psychiatrists, psychologists or any other mental health professional, rather it is administered by teachers employed by the prisons.  The suit alleges that this cognitive restructuring is a form of “mind control” which violates prisoners’ First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and thought.

The lawsuit points out that the Department of Corrections was notified that there is considerable literature regarding the harmful psychological effects of this type of isolation in a prison.  Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist in California, and Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard, have published a number of articles on the subject.  As the literature suggested, the need for mental health treatment at the Supermax has risen.  Despite the new designation of the pods as mental health facilities, the inmates within those units are still reportedly subjected to the same rules and the same conditions as those applied to non-disabled inmates.

Most of the plaintiffs had been diagnosed by the Department of Corrections as having mental disabilities before their placement into the facilities.
These inmates allege that their mental problems have been exacerbated by their placements in the program. Other inmates who were not previously diagnosed with disabilities allege that they are at risk of developing mental problems as a result of their isolation and the conditions in “Supermax.”  The suit also alleges that in 1999, corrections officials were notified in the Duran consent decree case, that the isolation imposed in the “Supermax” causes people to become mentally ill.

At the center of the lawsuit is a legal challenge to the prisoners’ classification into the Special Control Facilities; the lack of any process for appealing placement there; the denial of rehabilitative, educational, religious and social programs; the arbitrary loss of good time credits, which effectively lengthens prisoners’ incarceration; denial of family visitation; as well as the psychological harms they are suffering, without adequate psychological treatment, as a result of their placements.

When an inmate attempts to improve his conditions by writing an essay and his teacher simply does not judge the essay as adequate, the inmate can be subjected to even worse circumstances.

The issue comes down to the prison’s definition of “punishment”.  If the prison authorities assert that the prisoner broke a rule of the Cognitive Restructuring Program or is alleged to have violated an “Adjustment Control,” or is alleged to have violated a provision of a “Behavior Control Program Contract”, then he loses every object within his cell which could occupy his mind and every other activity outside his cell including losing: all reading material, writing material, library books, religious items, recreation, visiting, telephone use, religious access, and legal access.  But because the prison system has not issued an actual misconduct report, there is no right of appeal. In other words, as long as the prison does not define the loss of these basic living conditions as a form of punishment, then the system need not offer any hearing or appeal system to the prisoner.  As it stands, there is virtually no system, no hearing officer, no court, and no prison official to whom the prisoner can turn to for help.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the First and Eighth Amendments, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires the government to provide “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities.

The prisoners are represented by the ACLU of New Mexico Co-Legal Director Phil Davis, and ACLU-NM Cooperating Attorneys Larry Kronen, Edwin Macy, Peter Cubra and Mark Donatelli, who were counsel in the Duran consent decree case.

Press Conference scheduled for Tuesday, October 22, 2002 at 1:30 p.m. at the Law Office of Phil Davis, 814 Marquette NW, Albuquerque, NM  87102.

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See also: UPI: New Mexico prison system under fire