New Mexico Bill Would Curtail Use of Solitary Confinement

SANTA FE, N.M. — Pregnant inmates, juveniles and mentally ill inmates in New Mexico may soon benefit from two bills — HB175 and SB185 — aimed at ending the use of solitary confinement for these specific populations in both government-run and privately operated jails, prisons and detention facilities.

Lawmakers in both the New Mexico House and Senate have supported the bills, which would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” as well as increased transparency as to the scope of the practice, which allows inmates only minimal contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs, according to the language in HB175.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of HB175 together with Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, told New Mexico In Depth. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

Both bills easily cleared public affairs committees, with only one dissenting vote; however, New Mexico In Depth also reported that both county officials and the state corrections officers have criticized the legislation. The officials claim solitary confinement, even for juveniles and mentally ill inmates, is a necessary tool for maintaining order and safety in correctional facilities. In response, sponsors changed the bills’ original language to allow the use of solitary confinement with mentally ill inmates for up to 48 hours should the inmate pose a direct physical threat to themself or others.

The bill further requires that, beginning July 1, all facilities within the state begin submitting quarterly reports including the name, age and ethnicity of every inmate who was placed in isolated confinement during the previous three months, including every inmate who is in isolated confinement at the time the report is submitted; the reason isolated confinement was instituted for each inmate named in the report; and the dates on which each inmate was placed in and released from isolated confinement.

The New Mexico Corrections Department housed 465 individuals, or 6.5 percent of the state’s prison population, in some form of segregation in January 2016, according to a fiscal report included with HB 175. Officials told New Mexico In Depth that the state correctional population does not currently include any pregnant women in segregation, and that figures were not available as to the current number of mentally ill inmates in segregation.

Other states to recently end or curb the use of segregation in juvenile facilities and for mentally ill inmates include Indiana, Oregon, North Carolina, Nebraska and California.