An Eddy County man jailed on commercial burglary charges was placed in solitary confinement for attempting to kill himself. He was kept for six months in a padded cell with nothing but a hole in the floor, according to his attorney, Matthew Coyte, who later won a multimillion-dollar settlement for the man.
With no toilet, sink or toilet paper in his cell, Coyte said, the man was forced to use a Styrofoam cup to push his feces through the grate covering the hole in the floor. He later handled his food with his soiled hands.
“We have in New Mexico an abuse and overuse of solitary confinement that has been going on for years,” Coyte testified Friday before the New Mexico House Judiciary Committee during a hearing for House Bill 175, which would limit use of the practice and require detailed reporting on inmates held in isolation.
Coyte — a civil rights attorney who has testified in front of the United Nations on solitary confinement and has won other settlements in high-profile cases in New Mexico — addressed the committee as an expert witness in support of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
The bill squeaked through the committee by a vote of 7-6, with legislators voting along party lines. Democrats supported the bill, while Republicans opposed it. Maestas sponsored similar legislation in 2015, but it died in a committee.
Corrections officials in New Mexico continue to say they are working toward reform and need more time to eliminate the use of solitary confinement, Coyte said, “but we’ve been hearing this for years, and the cases keep piling up. … It keeps happening, and we need to change the culture, we need to change the law. It’s a public safety issue, and it’s a human rights issue.”
Maestas’ measure would prohibit jails and prisons in the state from putting children, pregnant women and those with a known serious mental illness or disability in isolation, defined as 22 hours or more per day alone in a cell.
The bill would require quarterly reporting of inmates held in solitary confinement, including the name, age and ethnicity of every inmate placed in isolation over a three-month period, the dates the person was placed in and removed from the solitary cell and the reason for holding the person in isolation. Jails and prisons also would be required to report monetary settlements paid to inmates and their family members in civil lawsuits filed over the use of solitary confinement.
Representatives from Disability Rights New Mexico, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, The Ark of New Mexico, New Mexico Interfaith Worker Justice and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents corrections officers, spoke in support of the measure Friday.
A lobbyist with the New Mexico Association of Counties said the organization opposes the bill as it now stands, though it might support the measure with some changes.
The association “traditionally strongly opposes restrictions on our ability to separate [some] inmates from the rest of the population,” Grace Phillips said. But after Maestas’ bill was amended in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee to allow mentally ill patients to be placed in solitary for up to 48 hours, it “is closer to something we can support,” she said.
Phillips said the association would like to see further changes to the bill to allow the use of solitary for any prisoner during the first five days of incarceration, when an inmate might be detoxing or a facility might be trying to identify the correct placement for the inmate.
The association also would like to change the language of the bill to specify that it only applied to those with a mental illness that had been diagnosed by a “qualified mental health professional,” so facility staff would not be charged with determining who was mentally ill, she said.
“We don’t have capacity to have a mental health professional at all hours to make that diagnosis,” Phillips said, adding that county jails process more than twice the number of inmates as state prisons, taking in between 100,000 and 200,000 per year as opposed to about 90,000 at the state level.
A lobbyist from Bernalillo County, which has the largest population of jail inmates in the state, also stood in opposition to the bill, though she didn’t say why.
In 2015, then state Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel spoke against similar legislation, saying taking away solitary confinement would take away one of the tools that corrections officials use to run a safe facility.
His successor, David Jablonski, who was appointed in October, has been more opaque on the issue. In response to The New Mexican’s request to interview Jablonski on the topic, Corrections Department spokesman Sita Mahesh supplied the following statement via email: “We’re still reviewing the legislation.”
Mahesh said the department currently has about 350 of its approximately 7,000 prisoners, less than 5 percent, in “restrictive housing.” That’s an improvement over last year, according to a fiscal impact report for the bill, which said the department reported 460 inmates, or about 6.5 percent, were held in isolation in 2016.
“With higher staff to inmate ratios and less efficient prison space usage, the cost to house inmates in isolated confinement is more expensive than housing inmates in the general population,” the fiscal analysis said.
“However,” it said, “the cost of having these inmates in the general population is unquantifiable. Isolated inmates reduce tension in the general population. Having fewer isolated inmates may require increased guard to prisoner ratios and increased litigation. … This bill would decrease costs in some areas and increase costs in others, making the fiscal implications of this bill indeterminate.”
The bill will now move to the House floor for a vote.
Discussion of an identical piece of legislation, Senate Bill 185, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen D-Las Cruces, began Friday and will continue Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.