A Santa Fe attorney announced Tuesday that he’s preparing to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of an inmate at the Penitentiary of New Mexico who has been held in solitary confinement since 2007 — and he plans to expand the case to a civil rights class action to fight what many are calling abusive treatment of prisoners across the state and nation.
“The time has come to abolish long-term solitary confinement in America,” attorney Jason Flores-Williams said in a statement. “It is a racist abomination that shocks the conscience and offends any contemporary standards of decency.”
Flores-Williams’ client, Justin Hinzo, was sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2004 for second-degree murder in a slaying that occurred during a party brawl, the attorney said. In July 2007, Hinzo was placed in solitary confinement for allegedly having a weapon in his cell.
“He has remained in solitary confinement since that time for a wide range of causes that have never been proven, the most recent being that he is being held for his own protection,” Flores-Williams said in the statement.
He said Hinzo spends 23 hours a day in his cell, leaving only once for a 45-minute exercise period held “in a box mesh cage with no access to sunlight.”
Hinzo is allowed to shower only once or twice per week, Flores Williams said, and his pain medication for degenerated discs in his back is often withheld as a way to control or punish him. He sleeps on a metal cot and is fed cold food through a slot in the door.
For the past month, Flores-Williams said, Hinzo hasn’t left his cell at all because his unit has been on lockdown.
Both Flores-Williams and Albuquerque attorney Matthew Coyte, who specializes in solitary confinement cases, say solitary is overused in New Mexico. Coyte said it often is used as a means for dealing with mentally ill inmates.
“It’s a benchmark for warning that your facility is not being run well,” Coyte said. “It’s used as a way to coerce people, to hide them away and steal their medication, to extract sexual favors from people. It’s a very heavy tool to use on a person.”
Coyte said about 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement across the nation. But hard numbers for New Mexico’s prisons and jails are difficult to come by.
A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico in 2013 quoted a 2004 study published by the U.S. Department of Justice that ranked New Mexico as the second worst state in the country for use of solitary confinement, with 13 percent of the state’s prisoners held in solitary. Virginia had the worst rate, according to the study, with 16 percent of its inmates in solitary. Those numbers were contrasted against a national rate of about 7 percent.
Conditions in county jails can be even worse than those at state facilities, Coyte said.
In one of his cases, he alleges George Abila was put in solitary confinement at the Eddy County jail when he became depressed, and that even when he was in a solitary cell, Abila was placed shackles, with only one hand free so he could eat.
Abila was not allowed underwear or socks, according to the complaint Coyte filed against the jail warden, and as a result of inadequate clothing and bedding, he “developed sores from sleeping on the cell floor for months.”
Abila was later placed in a padded solitary cell, according to Coyte’s complaint, in which there was only a grate-covered hole in the floor to use as a toilet.
“When plaintiff would defecate into the hole the feces and toilet paper would get caught forcing him to manually push the feces and feces covered toilet paper through the grate into the hole,” the complaint says.
There was no running water in the cell, the complaint says, so Abila could not wash his hands. And the light was left on 24 hours a day, making it hard for him to sleep.
After about two months in solitary confinement, Coyte writes in the complaint, his client’s mental health deteriorated to the point at which “he pulled off his own toenail.”
Stephen Slevin, another of Coyte’s clients, was awarded $22 million by a federal jury in 2012 for the suffering he endured while he was held in solitary confinement at the Dona Aña County jail. In that case, Slevin was healthy when he entered the jail but emerged having lost a third of his body weight.
He had a beard reaching to his chest, toenails curling around his toes, fungus on his skin and bed sores. He also had pulled out one of his own teeth and had “been driven mad,” according to reports published in The New Mexican at the time.
State Corrections Department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said Tuesday that the department began looking more closely at its use of segregation when current Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel became head of the agency in 2012.
“We have a goal to reduce segregation to 5 percent, and we are making strides,” Tomlin wrote in an email. “We started at about 10 percent, and the last report I received, we were closer to 8 percent.
Tomlin said about 264 of the state’s 7,000 inmates are permanently housed in Level VI “restrictive movement housing,” but she said Tuesday that she didn’t know how many other inmates are temporarily placed in segregation as a sanction or for their own protection.
“Protective custody is huge,” said Flores-Williams, whose research shows that nearly 300 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement in the state prison in Santa Fe right now. “They are using altruism as justification to torture and punish a human being, which is immoral.”
Tomlin confirmed earlier this year that about 60 inmates around the state had been placed in Level VI housing after an inmate was killed at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces in March. She said this was to allow officials to determine what had happened and to prevent further violence.
Hundreds of people with family members have protested the confinement. A Change.org petition titled “End the Unnecessary lock down at Southern New Mexico Corrections Facility” has received about 804 signatures, many from people who say they have family members in the prison who have been placed in solitary even though they had nothing to do with the homicide.
“One thing we discovered … is that it’s quite difficult to find accurate information about how solitary confinement is used in New Mexico, and to the extent that it’s used in New Mexico,” said ACLU New Mexico Policy Director Steven Robert Allen. “That’s part of the story. We need more transparency over when and where it’s used.”
On a positive note, Allen said, Marcantel — who spent 48 hours in segregation and was interviewed about the experience by ABC News’ Nightline for a television piece that aired in June — does seem to be paying attention to the issue.
“He’s been a good leader on this,” Allen said. “He’s open to having discussions about making changes to solitary confinement, and I do think that’s a good thing.”
Allen said the ACLU and Coyte are working together to draft a bill that would ban the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners and children, and ban the use of the practice on any inmate for longer than about 15 days. Allen said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has an expressed an interest in sponsoring the bill during the upcoming legislative session.
Flores-Williams said Tuesday he believes that in the future, the use of solitary confinement will be seen as “an issue of shame for our period.”
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.