Inmates in isolation

A solitary confinement prison cell at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

During her four months as a social worker at the state penitentiary in Santa Fe, Thelonika McCollum found herself facing a personal crisis. After being told to falsify mental health evaluations for solitary confinement inmates and clashing with her supervisors over other practices she considered unethical, McCollum decided the best thing to do to resolve her moral dilemma and continue the career she found fulfilling was to quit her job.

After serving nearly 20 years as a corrections officer, Ernie Garcia left his job at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in October. He quit over long hours and working conditions but, even though he worked at another facility and in a different position than McCollum, he reported seeing some of the same things regarding the handling of inmates in solitary confinement.

Although a law was passed two years ago to address how people assigned to solitary are treated, Garcia says he didn’t see it make a difference. The same number of people were being placed in solitary cells, which were always full.

In 2019, state Legislature passed the Corrections Restricted Housing Act, which bans correctional facilities from keeping juveniles, pregnant women and people with mental illness in solitary confinement. In addition, the law requires the New Mexico Department of Corrections to report the number of inmates in solitary confinement, the reason(s) they were placed there and for how long.

Thelonika McCollum.

But that system relies on accurate information, and McCollum and Garcia both independently told the Journal that wasn’t necessarily the case and that records were fudged to make it look as if the facilities were compliant.

A spokesman with the state Department of Corrections said he couldn’t speak to the validity of the former employees’ claims.

“Any time there is a complaint of any kind brought to our attention, it is taken seriously and looked into by the appropriate staff,” Eric Harrison, Corrections public information officer, said in an emailed statement.

Harrison said inmates with serious mental illnesses who are deemed dangerous or disruptive are sent to a Mental Health Treatment Center in Los Lunas instead of restrictive housing.

“These inmates receive sustained, meaningful human interaction outside of their cells every day in the form of recreational therapy, individual and group therapy, substance use treatment, anger management, social skills training and various educational programs,” Harrison said via email. “Inmates are admitted and discharged by psychiatric staff to ensure that every individual with a current serious mental health need receives the necessary treatment.”

Taking a toll

McCollum says she was tasked with completing mental status examinations for anyone in “restrictive housing” – the term used by the department for solitary confinement. People placed in solitary are restricted to their cells for at least 23 hours a day.

Prison cells in Unit 3 at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The mental health evaluations were important, she said, because they were used to monitor how an inmate was faring under solitary conditions. Multiple studies show that prolonged isolation can lead to, or exacerbate, mental health problems.

McCollum said she was asked by her supervisor to fill out mental examination forms before meeting with an inmate. She also said that a supervisor would randomly assign social workers’ names to a spreadsheet to make it look like inmates were being evaluated according to a schedule when they weren’t.

“We’re going around, basically, with (evaluations) pre-filled out,” she said. “And you just get the inmate to sign it. You don’t actually spend time with them, or be like, ‘Oh, how’s your mental health right now?’ ”

She said she was also discouraged from putting inmates displaying mental health issues on a treatment plan because her supervisor said they didn’t have the resources and that it would only result in “paperwork in their file.”

McCollum said there were inmates that weren’t doing well in solitary confinement, but she felt pressure to minimize their issues.

“I addressed that with my supervisor and he was like, ‘Well, this is prison, you need to get used to it,’ ” she said.

By the time McCollum decided to resign, she said it was pretty clear that filing complaints and pushing back against her supervisor wouldn’t work.

She said inmates weren’t being given the resources they need. Most times, McCollum said she was helping inmates in such crises that they were self-mutilating or acting as if they were completely delusional.

“It’s just crisis management. They’re not being given services that they need … because there’s a regular shortage of staff,” she said. “And then, when they do get people there like me, they drive you out if you are honest.”

Garcia, a prison guard at the corrections facility in Los Lunas, recounted similar charges as McCollum.

He says nothing really changed at the facility after the Corrections Restricted Housing Act was passed in 2019.

He said solitary confinement numbers can easily be manipulated, and he saw it happen. The department would classify an inmate as non-solitary, but keep them in solitary cells by saying the prison had run out of room in the main compound.

The isolation took a toll on inmates, he said.

“You would hear a call on the radio that an inmate in solitary confinement was making a noose and getting ready to attempt to hang himself,” he said.

Garcia also remembers hearing calls over the radio about inmates in solitary confinement hearing voices, having suicidal thoughts and hurting themselves.

Not a game

Former Behavioral Health Bureau Chief Bianca McDermott also told the Journal that the department would “play games” with different inmate classifications to avoid reporting them as solitary confinement.

McDermott last year agreed to a $1.4 million settlement after she alleged that she was retaliated against and later fired after she reported that the department wasn’t auditing the performance of its health care provider.

She equates keeping someone with a mental illness in solitary confinement with torture and supports the new law. But she now questions how the department goes about screening inmates for solitary.

Even people without mental illnesses can develop severe psychological problems through isolation, McDermott said, referencing research that shows people deprived of environmental or social stimulation can develop “stupor and delirium.”

But solitary confinement goes beyond conditions of confinement. It can be a matter of life and death.

Attorney Matt Coyte previously represented the estate of former inmate Michael Mattis, who died by suicide at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa.

Mattis suffered from severe mental illnesses, but Coyte says mental health records were falsified by the department to keep him in solitary confinement.

Mattis, who was 22, ultimately hanged himself in his cell in October 2014.

“The use of solitary confinement is terrible on the scale that we use it, but it’s even worse when the mental health forms are forged, or rubber stamping the continued use of solitary when the person inside is deteriorating mentally,” Coyte said.

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