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Closing the door on solitary confinement

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On a tour of the Old Main prison in Santa Fe, one of the more anachronistic sites is “the hole.”

A small concrete room at the end of a corridor, not much wider than a single bed and with no windows, it is where prisoners used to be put in solitary confinement. If you step inside and close the door, which clangs with a dreadful foreboding, you will be enveloped in blackness and silence. Even if you know you can step out any time you like, panic sets in quickly.

That’s at the old prison, closed now and used only as a movie set and tourist attraction.

Nearby, in the prison that replaced it, Deputy Corrections Secretary Joe Booker said they don’t call it “solitary confinement” anymore; they call it “segregation.” And he says the experience today is a far cry from “the hole.”

The cells where prisoners are now placed in isolation are slightly larger, maybe 6 feet by 8 feet, and they contain a bed, a desk, a toilet and two windows, one facing into the prison and one facing outdoors. Most interaction with the world outside the cell happens through the food slot, a hinged opening in the door big enough to slide a food tray through.

Inmates are placed in segregation for a variety of reasons – sometimes to protect them from predators, but more often as punishment for a rule infraction or violent behavior.

Booker said some inmates in segregation are allowed to take belongings, including a TV, into the cell, while others have their belongings restricted as punishment. Every inmate is pulled out every seven days for a mental health assessment. The cells exist at nearly every New Mexico prison.

A cell at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, where prisoners are held in “segregation” or “solitary confinement” for 23 hours a day. (Courtesy of NM Department of Corrections)

A cell at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, where prisoners are held in “segregation” or “solitary confinement” for 23 hours a day. (Courtesy of NM Department of Corrections)

Nationwide, about one in every 10 prisoners lives in a solitary cell, spending 23 hours each day inside the cell and one hour outside it, either showering or exercising.

It’s a staple of prison management that is not without controversy; defense lawyers and prisoners’ rights groups call it inhumane.

Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque lawyer who has sued on behalf of inmates kept in solitary confinement in county jails and the state prisons, doesn’t make the distinction between “solitary confinement” and “segregation” that corrections officials do.

Whatever it’s called, he argues, it is “the restriction of the person in a concrete cell of upwards of 23 hours a day, which means there is no meaningful interaction with other people.”

The result, Coyte says: “It causes you, if you’re stuck in a cell for a period of time, to gradually go insane.”

Booker, who spent his 30-year career in some of the toughest prisons in the nation before coming to New Mexico a year and a half ago, said he couldn’t say whether isolation causes inmates to go crazy. But, he says, “It can’t be something that’s good.”

New Mexico officials have the goal of cutting their segregation statistics from near 10 percent of inmates to 5 percent. Why? Because they have found that it doesn’t really work.

It’s an interesting intersection of the corrections world and the defense bar that has both sides agreeing that segregation should be scaled back. If they can work together to make one of the worst punishments prisons can mete out a rare exception rather than a rule, it could only be a good thing for New Mexico.

In the Middle Ages, Catholic monks who misbehaved were placed in solitary cells with the belief that isolation and silence would lead to repentance. That’s where the word “penitentiary” comes from, and the practice was introduced in the earliest days of the U.S. prison system in the 1770s.

The use of solitary confinement has come in and out of vogue since, but the theory has always been the same: If misbehaving inmates are isolated, they’ll be easier to control and they will be chastened by the experience and will behave better.

Booker said the theory is flawed because isolation keeps inmates from the programs that help them reform. Although Booker and Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel speak of changing the hearts of their prisoners, their bottom line is public safety.

Booker said the prisons need to isolate violent inmates but not every rule-breaker.

“Ninety-six percent of inmates come out. They’re going to the streets,” Booker says.”If we take every incident and put them in segregation, then we’re not helping the problem. It becomes a negative. We can lock them up, but if we don’t give them some hope and give them some skills to make that transition to the community, then we’re not really helping keep the public safe.”

The best approach, he said, is to use segregation sparingly and keep most rule-breakers in the general population, while withdrawing other privileges to punish them. Reducing the use of segregation might also help reduce the state prison system’s unenviable 46 percent recidivism rate, Booker said.

Coyte’s argument against solitary is more to the point of human rights.

“Historically, we have used this technique to torture people,” Coyte says. “In the Korean War, they did it. In Vietnam, they did it. In Nazi Germany, they did it. We do it because we know it works. We know it’s harmful and it’s hurtful.

“I concede that I can lose the battle here, because people don’t really care,” Coyte told me. “Because if people really cared, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Even if we think prison should be a place where lawbreakers suffer for their misdeeds, why should we care?

From a bottom-line perspective, because solitary is expensive.

From a practical perspective, because, as Booker points out, nearly everyone gets out of prison. They come back to our towns and neighborhoods, and if they come back less socialized, their mental illness worse and their anger deepened, then we’ve only made one of our problems worse.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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