Should a 71-year-old inmate be held in solitary confinement for more than a month on suspicion of taking meth in prison?
The answer should be a resounding “no” – and if Carol Lester’s allegations in a federal civil rights lawsuit prove true that she only took an antacid, not meth, it could be an expensive “no.”
Lester, a former executive director of the Ruidoso Board of Realtors, was in the state women’s prison serving a three-year sentence for embezzling more than $100,000 from the board to support a gambling habit. Her lawsuit claims that two years ago she was put in solitary after a positive urine test for methamphetamine. The lawsuit says Lester took Zantac, which it claims can produce false positives for meth, and she was held in solitary for 34 days. The prison’s policy at the time was 15 to 30 days for a first offense.
The drug use allegation was later dismissed without explanation although she wasn’t allowed to present evidence of the antacid use at her disciplinary hearing.
Lester says she was tested after complaining about medical care at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility, a private prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America in Grants that houses state inmates. Her lawsuit alleges retaliation.
Last month, a few days after Lester’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, state Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel announced a goal of reducing the use of solitary confinement by roughly half over the next year. This should be kept on the front burner.
The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons to protect inmates, maintain order or as a punishment has mushroomed since the 1980s, and Scientific American reported this summer that about 80,000 inmates now are kept in such isolation. But researchers have found that solitary can take a severe and sometimes permanent toll on an inmate’s emotional and mental health. Is this really what we want to do with people, most of whom will one day be released to society?
Lester’s case is reminiscent of that of Stephen Slevin, who spent nearly two years at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, much of it in solitary, before charges against him were dropped. Of course taxpayers footed a large portion of a $15.5 million settlement to Slevin.
Policy for solitary confinement should be clear and its use defensible. Its casual use not only harms the inmate but can be costly to those who pay the bills.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.