Even before President Barack Obama on Tuesday barred federal prisons from putting juveniles in solitary confinement, two state legislators had filed bills to create similar restrictions in New Mexico.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, want to prohibit New Mexico jails and prisons from placing inmates 18 and younger in solitary confinement.
They also are proposing other restrictions, including banning jails and prisons from holding inmates with “a serious mental illness” in isolation.
Both proposals to reduce the use of solitary confinement are long shots to clear the Legislature in a 30-day session, especially because bills on crime and harsher punishment are a dominant theme in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. GOP House members have introduced a series of proposals to lengthen many criminal sentences and to amend the state Hate Crimes Act to add law enforcement officers to the list of protected classes.
Maestas said Tuesday he doubted that his bill would be considered unless he reduces the scope only to juveniles. Thirty-day legislative sessions are primarily to craft the state budget, but Gov. Susana Martinez can allow other bills onto the agenda if she chooses to, as she has done with crime measures.
“I don’t think the governor will give it a message,” Maestas said of his bill for broad restrictions on solitary confinement. “I’m going to try to get a message strictly for juveniles.”
Papen’s bill so far is in purgatory in the Senate, though she still can appeal for it to be advanced to a committee hearing.
Gregg Marcantel, Cabinet secretary of the Department of Corrections, said state prisons have no juveniles in solitary confinement, and he was unaware of any being isolated in lockups supervised by the Children, Youth and Families Department. New Mexico’s 33 counties also operate jails.
Marcantel said mentally ill inmates could be held in isolation in prisons and jails. This can happen for many reasons, such as the prisoner’s condition being undetected and especially because of a lack of resources in small counties, he said.
Papen and Maestas in their bills are seeking statistical breakdowns every three months from all jails and prisons in which inmates were held in isolation, the reason why, and the number of days.
Maestas, an attorney and former prosecutor, said solitary confinement can defeat the goal of better-behaved inmates.
“Under current practices, solitary confinement involves locking an inmate alone in a cell for 23 hours a day under conditions of extreme social isolation and forced idleness. This can cause higher levels of aggression, mental instability and make life after incarceration more difficult,” he said.
Obama made similar arguments Tuesday in a column he wrote for The Washington Post. The president focused on a 16-year-old named Kalief Browder, who was arrested on suspicion of a minor crime, spent two years in solitary confinement, then killed himself while free at age 22.
“Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time,” Obama wrote. “Today, it’s increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”