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Editorial: Solitary shouldn’t be the only choice for mentally ill

County jails aren’t Best Westerns, but they needn’t be hell holes either.

Once again, a person with a mental illness – in this case schizophrenia – languished for seven months in a solitary confinement cell, forced to exist in filthy conditions. Granted, Alejandro Romero Jr. of Clovis contributed to his situation – he refused to take his medications and his mental health deteriorated to the point that he smeared feces all over his cell and destroyed his mattress, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf in U.S. District Court. Still, if allegations prove true, the treatment he received at the Curry County Detention Center was unconscionable.

Romero was arrested in 2012 for misdemeanor criminal damage to property of a household member after he stripped naked and started smashing objects in his parents’ home. The lawsuit alleges that “instead of treating his mental illness that compelled Alex to tear up his mattress, defendants denied Alex access to a mattress.”

Depending upon how things go in federal court, the county could be on the hook for serious monetary damages if other legal cases are any indication. In 2013, Doña Ana County had to pay $15.5 million in a case involving a man who was held in solitary confinement for two years without a trial. Los Lunas County recently reached a $1.6 million settlement with a female inmate who said she was denied treatment for her bipolar disorder while in and out of solitary confinement for two years.

State lawmakers this year failed to pass a bill that would have banned solitary for juveniles and inmates suffering from mental illness. House Bill 376, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, died in the House Judicial Committee. The basic principles in this legislation need to become law.

Certainly, it should be noted that county jailers aren’t trained as mental health professionals. And passing a Kendra’s law to allow courts to force some people with mental illness to take their meds would give corrections officers a powerful tool to use in cases in which an inmate appears to be out of control.

But solitary should not be the only tool in the box.

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.