Solitary Confinement in New Mexico

A 3 part series on solitary confinement in New Mexico, by KUNM:

Part 1 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Monday, April 28, 2014

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.
Read more here.

Part 2 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Monday, May 5, 2014

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.” read more by clicking here.

Part 3 By: Marisa Demarco, Aired: Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nataura Powdrell 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.”

Read more here.

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and ACLU-NM Release Report on Overuse of Solitary Confinement

October 31, 2013                 
Contact:  Gail Evans, NM Center on Law and Poverty (505) 255-2840
                  Steven Robert Allen, ACLU-NM (505) 610-4790
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and ACLU-NM Release Report on Overuse of Solitary Confinement
Up to16% of incarcerated New Mexicans are in solitary confinement. It is an overused, underreported practice in our state.
Albuquerque, NM – The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) and the ACLU of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) have released a report,“Inside The Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico’s Prisons and Jails,” detailing the findings of a year-long investigation of the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s prisons and jails. 

Their study found that solitary confinement is widely used in prisons and jails in New Mexico. While it costs more money to detain prisoners in isolation than in the general population, it does not improve public safety or reduce prison violence. Furthermore, solitary confinement as currently practiced in New Mexico infringes on fundamental rights by isolating prisoners with serious mental illness and allowing for prolonged periods of isolation. The use of this procedure in New Mexico also lacks adequate transparency at both the state and local level.
 “Holding people for months in solitary confinement is contrary to any notion of rehabilitation or re-integration,” said Gail Evans, Legal Director of the NM Center on Law and Poverty. “The evidence is clear that isolation results in cognitive deterioration, which can be irreversible, meaning that our prisons and jails are inflicting brain damage on our citizens.” 

Solitary confinement means detaining a prisoner in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in small cells, where the person is banned from most out-of-cell activities and social interaction. The investigation found that both state prisons and county jails hold hundreds people in solitary at any one time around the state. The average length of stay of solitary in the prisons is almost 3 years. In the jails, it can last for months, or even years at a time.  
New Mexico urgently needs to reform the practice of solitary confinement in its prisons and jails. The NMCLP and the ACLU-NM urge New Mexico to adopt the following 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 be 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
 “The amount of information we were able to gather is dwarfed by the amount of information we still lack,” said Steven Robert Allen, Director of Public Policy at the ACLU of New Mexico. “New Mexico desperately needs to implement uniform transparency requirements to fully reveal how and why solitary confinement is being used in our prisons and jails.”


Kristin Seale
Communications & Outreach Coordinator
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
924 Park Avenue, SW
Suite C
Albuquerque, NM 87102

Man left in solitary confinement for 2 years gets $15.5 million settlement

A man who spent 22 long months in solitary confinement in a New Mexico jail, neglected to the point where he was forced to pull out his own tooth because he said he wasn’t allowed to see a dentist, will receive $15.5 million for the ordeal.

The settlement with Dona Ana County, N.M., falls short of the $22 million that Stephen Slevin, 59, and his attorney had asked for, but is still one of the largest prisoner civil rights payouts in U.S. history.

“His mental health has been severely compromised from the time he was in that facility. That continues to be the same. No amount of money will bring back what they took away from him,” Matt Coyte, Slevin’s Albuquerque-based attorney, said on Wednesday. “But it’s nice to be able to get him some money so he can improve where he is in life and move on.”

Slevin’s story of inhumane treatment in the Dona Ana County Jail, where he was incarcerated from 2005 to 2007 — which he said included his toenails growing so long that they curled around his foot, and fungus festering on his skin because he was deprived of showers — first received publicity last January, when he was awarded the $22 million.

Dona Ana County had been appealing the verdict ever since, refusing to pay Slevin.
But the legal battle ended Tuesday with the $15.5 million settlement, a number decided on in court mediation, according to Jess Williams, Dona Ana County’s public information director.

An initial payment of $6 million is expected to be wired to Slevin by the end of this week; he will receive the rest in installments in the following days.

For Slevin — who has lung cancer and has beaten doctors’ odds for how long he would survive — the case was not about how much money he could make, his attorney said, but about getting recognition of how poorly he was treated and the scars he still has.

“He’s had lots of difficulties over the years. I don’t think he will stop having difficulties,” Coyte said. “The courage he had in the trial was magnificent.”

Slevin’s mistreatment by Dona Ana County started the moment he was arrested back in August of 2005, his attorney told NBC News.

“He was driving through New Mexico and arrested for a DWI, and he allegedly was in a stolen vehicle. Well, it was a car he had borrowed from a friend; a friend had given him a car to drive across the country,” Coyte said in an interview last January.

Slevin was depressed at the time, Coyte explained, and wanted to get out of New Mexico. Instead, he found himself in jail.

“When he gets put in the jail, they think he’s suicidal, and they put him in a padded cell for three days, but never give him any treatment.”

Nor did they give him a trial, Coyte said. Slevin said he never saw a judge during his time in confinement.
After three days in the padded cell, jail guards transferred Slevin into solitary confinement with no explanation.

“Their policy is to then just put them in solitary” if they appear to have mental health issues, Coyte told NBC News.

While in solitary confinement, a prisoner is entitled to one hour per day out of the cell, but often times, Slevin wasn’t even granted that, Coyte said.

Read the rest here.

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.

See also: UPI: New Mexico prison system under fire