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Solitary confinement bill derailed on 6-5 vote in House committee

A measure to limit the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico jails and prisons was dealt a body blow today in a House panel.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 to table the measure, with Republican lawmakers voting in favor of the motion and Democratic legislators opposed. Two committee members were absent from the vote, one from each political party.

The legislation, House Bill 376, had previously cleared one House committee. If enacted, it would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles and for adults with mental illnesses. Other inmates could not be placed in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days or not more than 60 days per year.

The use of solitary confinement in New Mexico has prompted lawsuits and led to costly settlements, and backers of the bill vowed Friday to keep working to curb the practice.

“Every correctional facility is put on notice,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor. “Either decrease the use of isolated confinement incrementally or lawmakers some day will give you no choice.”

But critics of the legislation have warned the bill could carry a hefty price tag, since many smaller country-run jails do not have psychiatrists on staff.

Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel has announced, even before this year’s bill was introduced, a goal of reducing the use of solitary confinement in state-run prisons.

But he also said earlier this week that solitary confinement — or “segregation” — is sometimes necessary, saying, “You can’t just abolish this tool.”

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