New Mexico is fourth in the nation when it comes to the use of solitary confinement and keeps more prison inmates in isolation than the state Corrections Department reports, according to a study released Thursday by the New Mexico branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to the ACLU, the state has routinely underreported its use of solitary confinement over the past decade, in part because it has no clear definition of “solitary” and instead uses “multiple and constantly-changing terms” to refer to the practice.
The ACLU study defines solitary confinement as an inmate being isolated from other inmates for 22 hours a day for 15 or more days at a time.
For example, the study says, the state reported in September that about 4 percent of its 7,000 prisoners were being held in solitary. But ACLU researchers, after examining daily population numbers obtained through public records requests, calculated more than double that number, about 9 percent of inmates, were in solitary at the time.
The study, conducted in conjunction with researchers from the University of New Mexico, also found that about 90 percent of the inmates surveyed said they had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and prisoners who are enrolled in the state’s Predatory Behavioral Management Program spend a minimum of eight months in solitary confinement as part of the program.
While inmates held in isolation are supposed to spend one hour outside their cells for recreation each day, the study says, inmates reported the policy is often ignored: Seventy-two percent of those participating in the survey said their recreation time was canceled two to three times per week “or daily.”
“Participants also report that it is common practice for prison guards to offer sack lunches or hygiene products in place of taking them out for their recreation time,” according to the study.
Some of the 90 inmates surveyed as part of the study also reported they were forced to choose between recreation time and shower time because of overlapping scheduling, and that these activities were routinely scheduled as early as 4 a.m.
In addition, the survey portion of the study found the following:
• 85 percent of inmates said they lost track of time while in isolation.
• 81 percent said they experienced violent thoughts, difficulties communicating and suspicion while in solitary.
• 77 percent reported fits of rage.
• 75 percent reported hearing voices.
• 54 percent reported having a nervous breakdown.
• 50 percent reported hallucinations.
• 24 said they had thoughts of suicide.
Among suggestions for how inmates’ living conditions could be improved, the study said female inmates “mentioned not constantly being told to strip naked, and not being forced to choose shower time over [recreation] time.”
The Corrections Department — which remains without a leader since Secretary-designate Julie Jones of Florida withdrew her candidacy for the position Tuesday — responded to a request for comment on the study through the Governor’s Office. Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the current level of inmates held in “restrictive housing” is 5.2 percent.
“They say they are unclear on how the report’s authors measured vs. how [the Corrections Department] measures” solitary confinement, Stelnicki wrote in an email, referring to officials within the agency.
Department officials said they compile a weekly report on solitary confinement, Stelnicki added.
As for the governor, Stelnicki said she “strongly feels that solitary confinement should be used only in extreme circumstances and is dismayed by the normalization of the practice and its application as described in the ACLU/UNM report, in particular for those inmates with mental health concerns. It is flatly inhumane and a reassessment must be done and will be done.”
Asked if the governor would support the ACLU’s recommendation that reporting requirements be imposed on the department, Stelnicki said “additional transparency is undoubtedly a well-intentioned recommendation. It’s an important move toward accountability. The reporting gap identified in today’s report is troubling to say the least.”
A bill that would impose some restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for children in juvenile justice facilities, pregnant women and inmates with serious mental illnesses in prisons and jails in New Mexico is being considered by the Legislature.
If passed as written, the measure also would require detention facilities to compile reports on their use of isolation.
House Bill 364, the Corrections Restricted Housing Act, is waiting for a vote on the House floor.