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Segregation of prisoners reviewed

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly 10 percent of state prisoners are living in segregation – locked down alone for up to 23 hours a day – but Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said Friday that his department aims to cut that roughly in half over the next year.

Marcantel testified before a legislative committee as state and county officials responded to a recent report that criticized New Mexico’s widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.

He said a variety of methods will be used to curb the use of segregation. Other disciplinary options will be considered first, for example. Prison gang members considered “inactive” – not engaging in predatory behavior – will be released from segregation, put in a special work training program, and eventually transitioned into the general prison population.

Prisoners who are currently segregated for their protection – sex offenders, for example, or informers – will be clustered at one of the prisons and effectively become their own general population unit, Marcantel said.

The goal is to reduce the 9.6 percent of the estimated 7,000 state prisoners currently in segregation to 5 percent by January 2015.

“I think this is an achievable goal,” Marcantel told the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

The recent report from the ACLU of New Mexico and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said the practice of solitary confinement is in urgent need of reform, citing isolation for prolonged periods – more than 30 days – and isolation of the mentally ill.

County corrections officials protested Friday that the term “solitary confinement” is antiquated and conjures up misleading images of dark holes and sensory deprivation.

Metropolitan Detention Center Chief Ramon Rustin said the Albuquerque jail’s segregation units are “totally different from solitary confinement.”

But Gail Evans, legal director of the Center on Law and Poverty, told legislators that holding someone in a cell alone for 23 hours a day with limited social activity, programming or human interaction is “exactly what solitary confinement is.”

The report cited the case of a former inmate at the Doña Ana County Detention Center who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement before charges against him were dropped after he was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. It also cited a case in Curry County in which a 15-year-old Clovis youth was held in solitary confinement for about eight months.

The report recommended banning the solitary confinement of children and the mentally ill; limiting the duration for others to 30 days; requiring mental, physical and social stimulation for those inmates; and increasing transparency and oversight of the use of solitary confinement.