Rick McConnell told The New Mexican in a story published in April that he spent four years of his 18-year sentence in a New Mexico prison without his prosthetic leg. He was forced to hop on one leg to get around, he said, because his crutches were often taken away from him by prison staff at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs.
McConnell is among more than 200 inmates who filed lawsuits against the state prison system’s former medical services provider, Corizon Health, between 2007, when the corporation was first awarded a contract with the state, and earlier this year, when the state awarded the prison health contract to another company, Centurion.
A six-month investigation by The New Mexican found that the number of lawsuits filed against Corizon had risen sharply while state Corrections Department officials and lawmakers allowed the company to operate largely unregulated.
In 2014, New Mexico District Judge Jacqueline D. Flores ordered McConnell’s 18-year sentence reduced to time served because of the “cruel and unusual punishment” he had endured, a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
According to a report published in September by the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, many inmates with disabilities, like McConnell, face civil rights violations by prison staff, and other medical issues. The 2016 AVID Prison Project report — Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities — describes cases in 21 states where prison staff took wheelchairs, canes and walkers away from inmates and denied them accommodations, services and programs in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The AVID report also said that prisoners with mental illness are often segregated and placed in solitary confinement.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 32 percent of state and federal prisoners have a disability. In a report issued earlier this month, the agency said there were more than 750,000 people with disabilities incarcerated across the nation.
As prisoners age, they are developing more debilitating conditions at a higher rate than people who are not incarcerated, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Such problems also are prevalent in county jails. About 35 percent of the people held in county jails in New Mexico — 2,557 people on any given day — are prescribed psychotropic medication, and even more have a mental health diagnosis that isn’t treated with medication, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
In a 2012 report, the Sentencing Commission found that simply having a mental illness increased an inmate’s length of stay by 36 days and that having a very serious mental health diagnosis, such as a psychotic disorder, increased the median length of stay by 121 days.
“There is a real need to share information about the treatment of prisoners,” said Mara Taub, who heads the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights, a national organization based in Santa Fe.
She started volunteering with the New Mexico Women’s Prison Project in 1972 teaching arts and crafts at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. She’s seen the population of incarcerated women grow dramatically. “When I started with the women’s project,” she said, “there were only 18 women at the state penitentiary. Now there are an estimated 700 women in New Mexico prisons.”
Female prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to report having a disability, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says.
A legislative task force recommended state and county funding be identified for psychological screenings and clinically appropriate housing for individuals with serious mental illness in county detention facilities.
Although the New Mexico Legislature has yet to act on the task force recommendations, a majority of Santa Fe voters recently approved a nonbinding question to increase gross receipts tax to support county behavior health services.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center, 800-949-4232. He can be reached at email@example.com.