Solitary Bill Moves Through Roundhouse
Isolated confinement act is a progressive measure
By Robin Babb
A house bill sponsored by Representatives Antonio Maestas (D-Bernalillo) and Patricia A. Lundstrom (D-McKinley/San Juan), called the “Isolated Confinement Act,” would place new restrictions and require reporting on the use of isolated confinement in New Mexico jails and prisons. HB 175 proposes to prevent correctional facilities from putting juveniles (people under the age of 18), pregnant women and people with known mental illnesses in solitary confinement. If passed, this would be the most progressive solitary confinement law in the country.
This bill arrives in the wake of several high-profile solitary confinement cases, including that of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old who was held in Rikers Island Prison for three years (and in solitary confinement for two of those years) without being convicted of a crime. Browder was finally released in 2013, but committed suicide—after multiple failed attempts—in 2015.
Perhaps more notable in New Mexico is the local case of Stephen Slevin, the man who was arrested for drunk driving in 2005, then held in solitary confinement due to a history of mental illness in a Doña Ana County jail for 22 months without trial. Slevin emerged from the jail malnourished, covered in bed sores and with severe PTSD.
Because of cases like these, reforming the use of solitary confinement has gained national attention in recent years. Juan Méndez, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said at a UN General Assembly in 2011 that solitary confinement should be banned except for the most extreme cases, but with an absolute prohibition for pre-trial detention, juveniles and the mentally ill.
“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system … Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”
Rep. Maestas sponsored a similar bill (HB 376) in the 2015 New Mexico legislative session, but it was killed by the House Judiciary Committee in a 6-5 vote. This time around, Maestas is more optimistic about the bill passing.
The state representative told Weekly Alibi, “the vagueness of the definition of mental illness in the 2015 bill made it hard to pass. Some people were concerned that any prisoner would be able to plead mental illness to keep themselves out of solitary. In response, we’ve modified this bill to have a more medically concrete definition.”
Of the huge number of prisoners that suffer from mental illness, many are kept in solitary confinement as an “out of sight, out of mind” measure instead of receiving psychological evaluation or treatment. Many New Mexico correctional facilities do not have adequate healthcare, including behavioral health services, and solitary confinement has emerged as an available method to keep mentally ill inmates from harming themselves or others. Unfortunately, solitary confinement tends to exacerbate pre-existing mental illness rather than alleviating it.
Besides the human rights argument is the steep fiscal burden of placing inmates in solitary confinement. According to the fiscal impact report on HB 175, “Other states, such as Arizona, have put the cost of housing maximum security inmates at about $50 thousand annually compared to $20 thousand for inmates housed among the general population.” A 2013 federal report from the Government Accounting Office said that housing an inmate at a medium security federal prison costs $57.41 per day, while the cost of placing an inmate in isolated confinement is $78.21 per day. Additionally, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually fighting and settling solitary confinement cases like that of Stephen Slevin, who received a settlement of $15.5 million.
Although some legislators argued in 2015 that reforming solitary confinement would be an exorbitantly expensive process—ultimately killing HB 376—it’s very possible that not passing HB 175 could be more costly in the long run. It’s hard to determine the ultimate fiscal impact of this bill, since reporting on solitary confinement in New Mexico jails and prisons is practically nonexistent.
That would change if HB 175 becomes law, though. In addition to its restrictions, the bill also lays out clear guidelines for New Mexico jails and prisons to regularly report on the name, age and ethnicity of every inmate in solitary confinement, as well as the reason they have been put there.
“That we need more reporting on these issues hasn’t been contested at all,” said Rep. Maestas. “Everyone’s in agreement on that.”
HB 175 has been sent to the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. The committee reconvenes the week of Feb. 13. If it’s passed through the HCPAC it will go on to the Judiciary Committee. Since the bill has had fewer committee referrals than its 2015 predecessor—and since the House is a democratic majority this year—it does seem more likely that HB 175 will become law.
“We understand that if you’ve been working in a jail and doing things the same way for 15 years, it’s hard to pick up new techniques. But we want to wean the corrections community off the use of solitary confinement,” Maestas concluded. “It’s medieval, and most other countries have banned it outright. We need to catch up.”
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