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Is NM’s sex-offender-only prison experiment working?

linthicum_upfrontLast March, the New Mexico Department of Corrections began to concentrate several hundred of the sex offenders under its supervision into a single unit at a private prison in the community of Chaparral along the Texas border.

Corrections officials said it would be cheaper — $71 per day per inmate, compared with $108 in the state-run prisons. And they said these predatory sex offenders would benefit from the move, getting better treatment options and being freed from the constraints of prison segregation, where they are often held to protect them from other inmates who target sex offenders for abuse.

One year later, how is this sex-offender-only prison experiment going?

From the Department of Corrections point of view, the decision to concentrate 306 sex offenders in a wing of the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral is a successful move.

Corrections says it has been able to start moving these inmates through an intensive 18-month treatment program heavy on group therapy. It has fewer inmates living in solitary confinement cells for their own protection. And the reviews from inmates have been positive.

The picture I’m getting from inside the wing isn’t as rosy — at least according to the select number of inmates who complained to me about conditions there.

In a letter he titled “A Recipe for Disaster,” one inmate says putting 300 sex offenders together into a dorm-like setting with limited vocational programs and visitation hours has led to a tinderbox.

“Mix it all together and wait to see not if, but when, something is going to happen!” the inmate wrote.

That inmate, serving time for rape, wasn’t alone. Two other inmates complained about lack of educational opportunities and the fact that the solitary confinement unit is in the center of the building and has no windows to the outside.

New Mexico Corrections Department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin acknowledged that solitary confinement cells at the Otero County facility differ from the ones at all other state prisons. They have a window into a corridor but not one to the outside, because the building’s design prevents that, she said.

As for the other complaints?

The prison is divided in two, with federal inmates on one side and state inmates on the other. The state side is organized into two 22-bed dorms to accommodate former law enforcement officers doing time and four large dorms where sex offenders do theirs.

By law, federal prisoners and state prisoners cannot intermingle, so spaces used for visitation, educational and vocational programming and the library do double duty for both sets of inmates, and that reduces the time state inmates have access to them. Still, Tomlin said, the level of opportunities at Otero County is in line with those offered inmates at other prisons.

The prison complex is being expanded, and a new building will include a library and more visitation and program rooms, Tomlin said, which should allow state inmates more time to use those services.

You might think that concentrating sex offenders together in a dorm setting would lead to spike in in-prison sex crimes. But Tomlin said the department’s records show that only two allegations were made there in 2013.

One thing that is not in short supply at the sex-offender unit is discussion of sex offenses — how to recognize what triggers them, how to change behavioral patterns to reduce triggers, how to ask for help.

Most sex offenders are released from prison at some point. Although they re-offend at comparatively low rates compared with other criminals, their offenses are heinous and so reducing their recidivism even further is a priority. That’s the purpose of the special sex-offender unit, Tomlin said.

To be considered for the unit, inmates have to admit to their sex offenses, not deny them, and show a willingness to change. Inmates receive treatment in groups and individually and the program lasts 18 months, Tomlin said. Inmates tend to be transferred to the Otero County unit when they have only a couple years left on their sentences so the skills they pick up in the program will be fresh when they are released.

“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from inmates saying, ‘I’m finally talking about my issue,’ ” she said.

 

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.


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