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New Mexico study disputes state’s solitary confinement rates

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly one in 10 state inmates is being held in solitary confinement on any given day, and nearly all of those in isolation say they have been diagnosed with mental illnesses that they largely believe are being inadequately treated, according to a study Thursday.

The findings released by the American Civil Liberties Union were based on an evaluation of prison records and a survey of inmates held in isolation in both private and publicly operated prisons. University of New Mexico researchers who contributed to the study also based findings on a sample of the state prisons’ solitary confinement population drawn from a single day in September 2018 in which state officials said the rate of prisoners held in isolation was about 4 percent — less than half of what the study had found.

At a news conference Thursday, criminal defense attorney Matthew Coyte framed solitary confinement as an issue that poses cost and safety issues for the public, saying that segregation only worsens a felons’ mental state instead of provide rehabilitation. Coyte, who assisted with the ACLU study, has won numerous multi-million-dollar judgments on behalf of clients previously held in solitary confinement.

“We have been manufacturing mental illness for years with this form of incarceration,” he said. “You don’t want people who are incarcerated to come out worse.”

The release of the report coincides with a push by the ACLU and others for legislation that would limit who state corrections officials place in solitary confinement.

A bill sponsored by several House Democrats would prohibit corrections officers from isolating juvenile and pregnant inmates. Inmates with serious mental disabilities could not be kept in solitary confinement for more than 48 hours.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, has yet to fill the position of corrections secretary. She has said she wants evaluations of the agency’s performance to include the use of solitary confinement and related suicide rates. She said solitary confinement “should be used in only the most extreme and narrow circumstances.”

Josh Anderson, a spokesman for the union representing state corrections officers, said the group was open to reviewing further proposals to change policies for managing the state’s prisons, but first wanted to see the corrections department adequately funded and staffed.

The department oversees 7,300 inmates in 11 prisons. It has struggled to hire and retain officers and avoid growing overtime expenses.

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This story corrects a previous version that said the report was released Friday.

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