Ad­vo­cates seek re­forms to curb use of soli­tary con­fine­ment

Warn­ing of prac­tice’s po­ten­tially fa­tal con­se­quences, op­po­nents hope next gover­nor will get be­hind leg­is­la­tion

The Taos News - - STATE NEWS - By Phae­dra Hay­wood phay­wood@sfnewmex­i­can.com

Isa­iah Trin­ity Cabrales couldn’t take it any­more.

The 20-year-old Las Cruces man had been in soli­tary con­fine­ment for seven months when he hanged him­self from a light fix­ture in his cell at the Pen­i­ten­tiary of New Mex­ico in July, ac­cord­ing to the state Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment.

He had about a year re­main­ing on his sen­tence for bat­tery on a peace of­fi­cer, one he be­gan serv­ing in May 2017, court records show. A red sign taped to the door of his cell said he wasn’t al­lowed phone calls, trips to the com­mis­sary or vis­i­tors un­til March 2019 – a prospect Cabrales ev­i­dently couldn’t face.

“To­day he went to the yard and I was talk­ing to him and he came back and said, ‘I can’t do this no more,’ ” an in­mate in a neigh­bor­ing cell told state po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“I said, ‘Just tell ‘em, tell ‘em you don’t want to be in here any­more,’ ” the in­mate con­tin­ued. “I didn’t know him. But he was a kid so I kind of talked to him. You get be­hind these walls and some­times these kids can’t han­dle it.”

After Cabrales’ death, state prison of­fi­cials de­clined to dis­cuss whether he had been screened for men­tal ill­ness, cit­ing med­i­cal con­fi­den­tial­ity reg­u­la­tions. Court records in­di­cate he had suf­fered a trau­matic brain in­jury at some point in his life. One of his first ar­rests as an adult in 2016 – for bat­tery on a health­care worker – took place at a men­tal health hos­pi­tal.

Cabrales’ death high­lights the on­go­ing but so far fu­tile ef­forts by law­mak­ers and so­cial jus­tice ad­vo­cates to re­form New Mex­ico’s use of soli­tary con­fine­ment, de­fined as 22 hours per day or more alone in a cell. Ex­perts say it has dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects on the men­tal health of in­mates, par­tic­u­larly those al­ready suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness.

State Rep. An­to­nio “Moe” Maes­tas, civil rights at­tor­ney Matthew Coyte and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of New Mex­ico have been call­ing for re­forms in the state’s use of soli­tary for years.

Maes­tas, D-Al­bu­querque, spon­sored leg­is­la­tion in 2015 that would have banned the use of soli­tary for ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers and men­tally ill in­mates and limited its use to 15 days at a time and 60 days per year for all in­mates.

His bill died in com­mit­tee after cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, county jail war­dens and then-Cor­rec­tions Sec­re­tary Gregg Mar­can­tel op­posed it, say­ing it would take away a tool needed to safely con­trol in­mates, par­tic­u­larly in light of chronic un­der­staffing in state pris­ons.

While he headed the cor­rec­tions depart­ment, Mar­can­tel went un­der­cover to spend 48 hours in soli­tary con­fine­ment, an at­tempt, he said, to un­der­stand what it’s like to be held in iso­la­tion. He sub­se­quently pledged to re­duce the per­cent­age of in­mates held in iso­la­tion from 10 per­cent to 5 per­cent of the prison pop­u­la­tion.

But he op­posed Maes­tas’ re­form bill dur­ing the 2015 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, con­tend­ing the prison sys­tem needed more time to de­velop al­ter­na­tive ways of deal­ing with un­ruly pris­on­ers. He also ar­gued such change needed to be “forged” rather than “forced.”

Maes­tas and Rep. Pa­tri­cia Lund­strom, D-Gallup, spon­sored a less am­bi­tious bill in 2017 that would have banned the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment for preg­nant women, chil­dren and men­tally ill in­mates (with rare ex­cep­tions). It also would have re­quired de­ten­tion cen­ters and pris­ons to re­port in­for­ma­tion about in­mates placed in soli­tary on a quar­terly ba­sis.

It passed both cham­bers with broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port but was ve­toed by Gov. Su­sana Mar­tinez.

Maes­tas says it’s time to stop talk­ing about mak­ing changes and com­mit to ac­tion.

“They’ve had four years to ratchet down their soli­tary con­fine­ment per­cent­ages,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “They had a four-year head start, so now there shouldn’t be any ap­pre­hen­sion about pulling the Band-Aid on soli­tary. It’s time to end soli­tary con­fine­ment in New Mex­ico, par­tic­u­larly for chil­dren and the men­tally ill.”

A for­mer cor­rec­tions depart­ment of­fi­cial said soli­tary con­fine­ment ad­versely af­fects pris­on­ers and of­ten trig­gers sig­nif­i­cant harm, up to and in­clud­ing sui­cide.

“If the pris­oner has a pre-ex­ist­ing men­tal ill­ness the risks are that much higher,” Dr. Bianca McDer­mott, who once headed the depart­ment’s Be­hav­ioral Health Bu­reau, wrote in an email. “I have per­son­ally seen in­mates kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment in New Mex­ico pris­ons for years. The worst out­come is, of course, sui­cide. Other in­mates seem to man­i­fest ex­treme rage, para­noia and im­pul­siv­ity. Oth­ers be­come lethar­gic, pas­sive and seem to have lost so­cial skills and cop­ing mech­a­nisms.”

McDer­mott, who has a pend­ing whistle­blower law­suit against the depart­ment over her ter­mi­na­tion in 2015, said peo­ple need so­cial in­ter­ac­tion to main­tain their men­tal and phys­i­cal well-be­ing.

“The im­po­si­tion of iso­la­tion,” she noted, “is stress­ful on hu­man be­ings, and this is likely one of the rea­sons that jails and pris­ons use it as pun­ish­ment.”

Just how heav­ily New Mex­ico pris­ons rely on the use of soli­tary to con­trol their pop­u­la­tions isn’t clear be­cause of a dearth of re­li­able data and be­cause of the ways in which cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials cat­e­go­rize in­mates.

Soli­tary con­fine­ment is gen­er­ally de­fined as iso­la­tion from hu­man con­tact for 22 to 24 hours a day.

But many dif­fer­ent terms are used within the prison in­dus­try for in­mates who spend the ma­jor­ity of their time sep­a­rated from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion: ad­min­is­tra­tive seg­re­ga­tion, med­i­cal seg­re­ga­tion, pro­tec­tive cus­tody, re­stricted hous­ing. And it’s un­clear if all of the in­mates in those cat­e­gories are in­cluded in counts pro­vided by of­fi­cials.

In 2013, the New Mex­ico Cen­ter on Law and Poverty and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of New Mex­ico re­ported “ap­prox­i­mately 16 per­cent of New Mex­ico’s prison pop­u­la­tion is housed in some form of soli­tary con­fine­ment.”

The re­port at­trib­uted that fig­ure to a cor­rec­tions sep­a­rt­ment pre­sen­ta­tion at the leg­isla­tive Courts, Cor­rec­tions and Jus­tice Com­mit­tee but said in a foot­note: “In a sub­se­quent con­ver­sa­tion with Jerry Roark, NMCD Di­rec­tor of Adult Pris­ons, Roark sug­gested that this fig­ure might be an over­es­ti­mate. In any case, the cur­rent num­ber is def­i­nitely over 10 per­cent.”

The av­er­age rate of pris­on­ers in seg­re­ga­tion in fed­eral pris­ons at the time, the ad­vo­cacy groups said, was around 7 per­cent.

In 2015, a cor­rec­tions depart­ment spokesman told The New

Mex­i­can the state’s rate of soli­tary con­fine­ment had dropped from about 10.1 per­cent in 2012 to “about 6.6 per­cent.”

In July of this year, Roark told law­mak­ers the state prison sys­tem had re­duced its use of soli­tary from 12 per­cent in 2012 to 4 per­cent.

But on Sept. 10, cor­rec­tions depart­ment spokesman S.U. Ma­hesh said 507 of the state’s ap­prox­i­mately 7,000 in­mates – about 7 per­cent – were in re­stricted hous­ing, and said when Roark spoke to the Cor­rec­tions Com­mit­tee, the re­stric­tive hous­ing pop­u­la­tion was at 5 per­cent.

Ma­hesh said an in­crease in in­mate vi­o­lence is re­spon­si­ble for the spike be­tween the 4 per­cent Roark re­ported to law­mak­ers in July and the 7 per­cent he cited in Septem­ber. He said the fig­ure fluc­tu­ates be­tween 4.5 per­cent and 7 per­cent, de­pend­ing on vi­o­lent in­mate be­hav­ior.

Cor­rec­tions Sec­re­tary David Jablon­ski de­clined mul­ti­ple re­quests to be in­ter­viewed.

Asked for in­for­ma­tion about the depart­ment’s ap­proach to soli­tary, Ma­hesh said via email the depart­ment has re­duced the num­ber of in­mates in soli­tary for pro­tec­tive cus­tody pur­poses by cre­at­ing sep­a­rate units for sex of­fend­ers and for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

Asked whether any re­view process ex­ists that ex­am­ines the use of soli­tary or sets goals for re­duc­ing its use, Ma­hesh re­ferred a re­porter to poli­cies on the depart­ment’s web­site. None di­rectly ad­dresses those is­sues.

Asked whether there are any caps on the amount of time an in­mate can spend in iso­la­tion and whether some New Mex­ico in­mates spend years in soli­tary, Ma­hesh replied:

“An in­mate’s length of stay in (a) re­stric­tive hous­ing unit varies from in­mate to in­mate and their will­ing­ness to change their dis­rup­tive and vi­o­lent be­hav­ior (sic).”

Maes­tas and Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, say they’ll co-spon­sor a new bill ad­dress­ing the is­sue in the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion and are hope­ful it will have a bet­ter chance of pass­ing with a new gover­nor in of­fice.

“I think we need to look at some­thing and say, ‘Does it work?’ “Papen said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view. “You put some­one in soli­tary con­fine­ment so, what, you break their spirit? Do they be­have bet­ter for­ever or do they sim­ply be­have bet­ter for a week? I just want to make sure we are sta­bi­liz­ing peo­ple and not do­ing dam­age.”

New Mex­ico State Po­lice

The cell where Isa­iah Trin­ity Cabrales was held in soli­tary con­fine­ment at the Pen­i­ten­tiary of New Mex­ico.

Cour­tesy Las Cruces Sun-News

Isa­iah Cabrales

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