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New law renews focus on inmate restricted housing

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Max Ortega, awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges, spent nine months in restricted housing – booked in a cell for 22 hours a day – in a Los Lunas prison.

But after the New Mexico Corrections Department was told to compile quarterly reports on inmates in restricted housing units, prison authorities realized there was a problem and adjusted his conditions, according to Eric Harrison, the NMCD spokesman.

“He should not actually be in restricted housing,” Harrison said. “So as soon as this report was generated, we took him out of that category. We’re getting him out of his cell for longer throughout the day.”

International bodies, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations, have said prolonged time in solitary confinement – more than 15 days – can damage an inmate’s physical and mental health.

Harrison said the Corrections Department calls the practice “restricted housing” rather than “solitary confinement” because inmates are allowed out of their cells for two hours a day in which they can have “meaningful contact with corrections officers” and time alone in the yard.

Over the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 364, the Corrections Restricted Housing Act, which bans the practice for juveniles and those with serious mental disabilities.

The bill also mandates that the state Corrections Department and county jails compile quarterly reports detailing the inmates they have placed in those units.

The first report, spanning July 1 to Sept. 30, was released earlier this month. Prison officials, advocates and legislators have noticed clerical errors – including that several men are misclassified as women – and have asked that it be formatted in a more “user-friendly” Excel spreadsheet in the future.

Ortega’s plight was just one of the issues that came to light.

While the Corrections Department reported that 6.6% of inmates were expected to be in restricted housing over this fiscal year, Matt Coyte, an attorney and the past president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said his analysis of the quarterly reports found that about 14% of prison inmates had been booked there over the three months.

“If you do that constantly, everyone will have gone through restricted housing,” he said.

Coyte has filed many lawsuits on behalf of inmates who were held in restricted housing, including one man who committed suicide last month.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, who was one of the sponsors of the act, said he was surprised by the number of inmates who were placed in restricted housing because they were being transported from one facility to another.

“When you’re transported from one facility to another, from prison to jail back to prison, a person doesn’t need to be in solitary longer than 48 hours,” he said.

The Journal tallied 85 inmates who were placed in restricted housing due to a “pending transfer to another facility” who were there for more than 15 days. Some of them were there for weeks or months.

“The U.N. considers more than 15 days to be torture,” Coyte said. “And you have no reason to isolate this man other than transport. He hasn’t done anything wrong, and you’re exceeding the international standard for torture each time you transport him. Which makes no sense.”‘

Harrison said prison officials are looking into ways they can lessen the time inmates are in restricted housing surrounding their transport to another facility.

However, he said, some who are classified as pending transport are actually being held in a prison under an agreement with a county jail.

In fact, Ortega was classified as one of those inmates.

He was being held at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility under an agreement with the Colfax County jail – where he had been initially – “for the public welfare and/or the safe custody of the defendant,” according to court documents.

Because Ortega had been charged but not convicted of a crime he could not be in general population, Harrison said. Then his court date was repeatedly moved back, so he ended up in restricted housing for a lot longer than he should have.

“It is policy but this is an extreme amount of time where we were continuously told that the trial date was postponed,” Harrison said. “So at a certain point, we had to take action. But, yes, this was an unfortunate situation.”

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