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Editorial: Solitary wrong solution for NM inmates and taxpayers

Throwing people into the “hole” can be inhumane, and it can be costly to the taxpayers.

A misdemeanor DWI charge landed Jerome Gonzales in the Otero County lockup in 2012. Roughly two months later he was diagnosed as psychotic as a result of his stint in solitary confinement, according to his attorney.

In essence, “he walked in without any symptoms and they watched him behave in (a) most inhuman manner for two months” without providing any mental health treatment, attorney Matt Coyte says.

Otero County has agreed to pay $2.9 million to settle Gonzales’ federal civil rights lawsuit. That’s a lot less than the $22 million a Doña Ana County jury awarded in 2012 to Stephen Slevin, who spent 22 months in solitary in Las Cruces. The county eventually agreed to a $15.5 million settlement.

In late 2013, Carol Lester, a grandmother with bipolar disorder, filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was kept in solitary for more than a month at the state women’s prison after an antacid she took led to a false positive for methamphetamine. After her lawsuit was filed, state Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel announced a goal of reducing the use of solitary confinement.

Coyte, who represented all three plaintiffs, says ending the practice would effectively eliminate such cases.

Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has introduced a bill that would place limits on the use of solitary confinement without eliminating it entirely – and there are cases where it might be the only option.

HB 376 would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles and for adults with mental illness or developmental disabilities and would limit its use for other adults to 15 consecutive days, or not more than 60 days in a year.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s analysis of the bill raises concerns that its implementation could lead to costly litigation of a different sort if vulnerable inmates are put into the general population and are harmed or if dangerous inmates can’t be kept away from inmates they may seek to harm. But it shouldn’t be up to the discretion of a county jailer to decide when solitary should be used and for how long.

Lawmakers should consider acceptable alternatives that take into account what small-town jails can provide, but all New Mexicans would be better off if such solitary confinement horror stories are put to an end.

Maestas should be commended for trying to move the state toward a solution to this costly and troubling problem.

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.