ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Corrections Department says it is committed to reducing the use of solitary confinement in prisons, and a recent, short-lived policy change that made it appear otherwise was a mistake.
For a brief period this fall, the department had a policy that hugely increased the amount of time an inmate could be put into disciplinary segregation for a drug offense.
According to a spokeswoman for the department, Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel was unaware of the revised policy, and as soon as it was brought to his attention he rescinded it.
No prisoners in the roughly 7,000-person system were sanctioned under the harsher policy, according to the department.
Since about 2000, the department’s policy has been that prisoners could be given 15 to 30 days of segregation for a first drug offense, and 20 to 30 days for a second offense.
However, a revision to that policy dated Sept. 5 and posted briefly on the department’s website changed it to 120 days of segregation for a first offense, and 120 to 180 days for a second offense.
Department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said the Sept. 5 revision was made by the Adult Prisons Division. She said Director Jerry Roark viewed the increase as a deterrent to drug activity, “with the idea it would help stop the inflow of illegal drugs.”
It was part of a package of policy changes that was reviewed and approved by Marcantel, but Tomlin said the secretary didn’t see the segregation change because he wasn’t provided paperwork – the so-called justification sheet – that would have alerted him to that particular provision.
The secretary signed off on the package, and it was posted on the prison’s website for about a week, according to Tomlin. After a lawyer representing inmates asked Marcantel about it, he ordered it rescinded, and it was replaced by a Nov. 7 revision that took the sanctions back to 15 to 30 days for a first offense and 20 to 30 for a second.
According to Tomlin, the harsher sanctions weren’t imposed on any inmates because prisons hadn’t yet been notified of them; officials were still working on a memo describing all the changes in the package.
“Nobody was actually affected by it,” the spokeswoman said.
Marcantel told lawmakers in late November that his department is aiming to reduce by roughly half over the next year the percentage of prisoners living in segregation – from the current 9.6 percent to 5 percent.
The department has been working since 2012 with the Vera Institute of Justice, which helps local and state governments improve their justice systems. A Vera report in July recommended the department use alternatives to segregation whenever possible, especially for minor disciplinary offenses.