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Prisons boss: Lessons learned in solitary

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel spent 48 hours in a solitary confinement cell like this one at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe in early May. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel spent 48 hours in a solitary confinement cell like this one at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe in early May. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel marked the end of a 48-hour stint in solitary confinement inside one of his own prisons with a large cup of Starbucks coffee and a drive home to see his wife.

“I’m glad I did it,” he said, “but I’m not going to do it again.”

Last Sunday’s column looked at how Marcantel spent his time in one of the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners who are being held in isolation. As the state prisons boss, he undertook the experiment to get a feel for one of the most controversial prison tactics – confining inmates to a cell alone for 23 hours a day.

The practice, which has ballooned in American prisons in recent decades, is used to isolate inmates who are deemed dangerous and to punish inmates who break certain rules. It has been criticized as inhumane and ineffective in terms of rehabilitating offenders, the great majority of whom eventually are released.

Marcantel’s takeaways from his experience?

“I left out of there knowing that’s a necessary tool in prison management. There’s no doubt about it. And I would never say differently,” he told me. “But it’s a tool that needs to be managed appropriately.”

In terms of administrative segregation – the use of solitary confinement to isolate inmates who pose threats – Marcantel said he’s still convinced there’s no substitution.

“People are not sent to prison to die, so I can’t have predators preying on other inmates,” he said. “I can’t just allow unfettered access of people who want to kill other people.”

But, he said, “The reality is that only a small number of people who come to our prisons are bona fide, predatory, psychopathic criminals.”

The prison is taking steps to make sure it’s the offenders who pose a risk who are put in isolation, rather than inmates who were preyed on, and to identify gang leaders, not lower-level followers, for segregation.

“I don’t know that the prison system in New Mexico has been an abusive user of segregation,” Marcantel said, “but I think we’d be disingenuous to say that we didn’t fall into a trap of overuse.”

The Corrections Department pledged last November to work toward reducing the number of inmates in segregation, which was 9.6 percent of the population at that time, to 5 percent by 2015. They’re not even close yet. On a recent day, when the prison system held 6,850 inmates, 672 – or 9.8 percent – were in solitary.

Marcantel walked out of his cell in early May and into an immediate debriefing with some of his senior staff. One of the first points he made was that inmates in segregation need a clear path out through a stepped process that rewards good behavior with increased privileges.

If an inmate handles the privileges – additional photographs or visits or phone calls, for example – with continued good behavior, he’ll get a step closer to moving out of segregation.

“It’s a place where the most dangerous people need to be,” Marcantel said, but, “you behave your way in and you behave your way out.”

Gregg Marcantel talks with an inmate in solitary confinement at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. He believes the practice is necessary but should be used more sparingly. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Gregg Marcantel talks with an inmate in solitary confinement at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. He believes the practice is necessary but should be used more sparingly. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has applauded Marcantel’s interest in solitary confinement and his commitment to reforms. Even so, Matthew Coyte, the association’s president-elect and one of the harshest critics of solitary confinement, points out that Marcantel’s 48-hour stint can’t be compared to the experience of an actual inmate who has no expectation of leaving after two days or of an inmate who is mentally ill.

Marcantel said he got insight from his own experience – in which he suffered a little anxiety but mostly passed his time with nothing more serious than boredom – that a cell alone is not a healthy place for an inmate with mental problems and that it should be used as a last resort for them.

“Part of intelligent use of this is making sure that it’s not used on people who are already mentally ill,” Marcantel said.

And he has concluded that segregation for discipline should be used more sparingly across the board. The concept of disciplinary segregation is that if the prison makes the time harder, the inmate will behave better in order to stay in the general population.

“That can’t be the only tool in our toolbox. There’s gotta be some other sanction that we use to change that behavior that’s more immediate and more effective,” he said.

To that end, Marcantel has challenged the administrative law judges who hear disciplinary cases to consider more alternatives before segregation, such as loss of good time, visiting privileges or access to commissary items, to modify inmates’ behavior.

Marcantel noticed a marked difference between his first 24 hours, which he spent with the amenities afforded to inmates in administrative segregation – a TV, music, coffee, snacks from the canteen – and his second 24 hours without those amenities in disciplinary segregation.

In disciplinary segregation, all he had to occupy his time was two books and pen and paper. He enjoys reading and writing, but he considered how much more isolating that experience might be for inmates who aren’t able to read or express themselves in writing.

“I think if you overuse it, what can happen is that people can just adapt to those environments,” Marcantel says. “And then all you’re doing now is creating a socially isolated human being that’s going to go back to your neighborhood, and you’re going to be scratching your head and wondering why he (committed a crime against) people. What happens is that something that was designed to be part of operant conditioning starts working the other way – you’re making people worse. ”

Marcantel also wants to end the practice of releasing an inmate directly from solitary into the outside world without transitioning back into the general population or, in cases where that’s not possible, having some preparation for reintegrating with other people.

“I don’t know a way out of having to segregate predators that doesn’t come with some impact on them as a human being,” Marcantel said. “Biologically, connectedness to people – we were born that way. It’s part of the human spirit.”

Already there’s a pilot program that puts the most violent prisoners in segregation into a communal setting where they’re confined to security chairs so they can’t hurt one another, but they have human contact and are led through some concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy. Whether or not those inmates will soon be released, it’s a step toward lessening the isolation of the segregation experience, Marcantel said.

“Somewhere between 96, 97 percent of the people in our custody right now are coming back to our neighborhoods, whether anybody likes it or not,” Marcantel said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to send people back better from prison than when they came.”

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

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