Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons.

If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use.

New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement. Numerous cases brought by children and people suffering from symptoms of mental illness have settled for hundreds of thousands — and in some cases millions — of dollars after they were subjected to harsh conditions in isolation.

Both bills — HB175 and SB185 — sailed through their respective chambers’ public affairs committees, with just one dissenting vote by Sen. Stuart Ingle, the Republican minority floor leader from Portales.

“This is a small request, a partial measure we badly need to stop some of these practices around solitary confinement in the state,” Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association and one of the bills’ authors, said in an interview. “Passing this should be uncontroversial.”

Early opposition came from county officials and the state’s corrections officers, who argued that completely eliminating solitary confinement, even for children and mentally ill inmates, would strip a valuable tool used to maintain order and safety in jails and prisons. Sponsors amended the bills to allow up to 48 hours of isolation for people living with mental illness in situations that involve “imminent threat of physical harm to the inmate or another person.”

The change garnered the support of the union that represents prison and jail guards, though some corrections officers who spoke to NMID remain concerned about how to deal with violent inmates once they’re released after 48 hours.

“Sometimes we get a mentally ill inmate who isn’t cooled off after 48 hours or doesn’t want to leave” isolation,” Sgt. Daniel Solis of the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center said in an interview. “So we’re going to create a potential use-of-force situation? I’m not sure that’s going to work. But the bigger issue is that the courts system is broken for the mentally ill: jails end up housing far more of these people than they should.”

The debate heads this week to the House and Senate judiciary committees. It comes at a time when several states have outlawed or limited the use of solitary confinement, particularly for juveniles and severely mentally ill inmates. They include California, North Carolina, Oregon, Indiana, Nebraska and the federal government, all of which have scaled back solitary in the past 14 months.

Legislators will be at a disadvantage discussing the breadth of solitary confinement in New Mexico.

A fiscal impact report attached to HB175 shows the state Corrections Department housed 465 people, or 6.5 percent of the state’s prison population, in some form of “segregation” in January 2016. The report did not say how many of those inmates had a mental health diagnosis. A spokesman for the department did not respond to NMID’s request for a current figure; lawmakers and advocates say they’ve had trouble getting a count, as well.

Similarly, there are no statewide statistics that show how many people are held in isolated confinement inside county adult and juvenile jails — let alone how many of them are children or living with mental illness.

Read the rest of the story from New Mexico in Depth here.

A year in solitary: ‘I didn’t want to lose it’

FARMINGTON — Joshua Saiz paces outside his mobile home, anxiously puffing on a cigarette and, alternately, flashing a grin at his young daughter. The gravel crunches under his shoes as he takes six short steps up, makes a tight turn, then six steps back.

Joshua Saiz

Always six steps up, six steps back.

The 40-year-old former oil field laborer can’t bring to mind why he’s so consistent. But his wife, Nakrista Saiz, has the answer: “I’ve asked him, too. That’s how many steps he could take in the cell.”

In 2013 and 2014, Saiz spent a year in solitary confinement at Santa Fe’s Penitentiary of New Mexico trying not to lose his mind.

“The days are just — the days are long,” Saiz said last year in an interview with NMID. “You’re just alone. You can’t see other people; all you see is a wall … My mind would race. I could see myself losing it, going crazy. I would sit there and tell myself: Hold on, don’t — I didn’t want to go crazy, I didn’t want to lose it.”

He was suffering from deep depression when he was thrown into solitary in August 2013, the result of watching his other daughter die at 23 months old of unknown causes on a camping trip before his arrest.

Joshua Saiz

Solitary, Joshua Saiz said, has made it worse. Where once there was a gregarious, chatterbox of a man, there now is an introvert who is sometimes paranoid, often lost in his own thoughts and struggling to make conversation, even with his wife and child.

“Now, my mind freezes up,” he said, more than a year after his release. “It’s like my vocabulary is gone, and I just worry. It’s like something bad is going to happen, and they’re going to send me back to prison.”

As legislators in Santa Fe debate a pair of bills that would limit the use of solitary on people living with or exhibiting signs of mental illness — including severe depression — Saiz’s experience stands as a harsh reminder of the consequences 22 hours or more a day spent alone in a cell can have on a person’s mental health.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of HB175.

By the third month of his time in solitary, Saiz should not even have been in prison, let alone isolated confinement, according to a civil rights lawsuit he has filed against the New Mexico Department of Corrections and some of its officials.

The story continues from New Mexico in Depth here.

People, Power and Democracy is a collaborative media project between KUNM, New Mexico in Depth, New Mexico PBS and the New Mexico News Port that explores the influence of money in New Mexico politics. Partial support for the project comes from the Thornburg Foundation.