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Use of solitary confinement should be limited

I am co-sponsoring a bill this session that would prohibit the use of solitary confinement on children, pregnant prisoners and those living with a serious mental illness. House Bill 242 would also require quarterly reports to be issued identifying inmates held in isolation, the reasons for their placement and the length of time spent in isolation.

We desperately need this legislation in New Mexico. According to a report released by the Marshall Project, New Mexico has the fourth highest percentage of prisoners held in solitary confinement. Furthermore, year after year, we have seen huge legal settlements based on horrendous instances in which prisoners have been held in solitary confinement in New Mexico.

I believe it is particularly important that we outlaw this barbaric practice on prisoners diagnosed with a serious mental illness. I have a son with autism, and I know that solitary confinement would be disastrous for others like him and would severely damage mental health and lead to further problem behaviors. Solitary confinement, as we know from decades of research, exacerbates mental health issues. It can make prisoners more dangerous to themselves and others.

Furthermore, from a fiscal perspective, the overuse of solitary confinement in New Mexico has resulted in costly litigation that wastes taxpayer dollars. To take just one extraordinary example, in 2012 former prisoner Stephen Slevin was awarded $22 million after he was confined in a tiny cell in the Doña Ana County Detention Center for almost two years without a trial. On appeal, he accepted $15.5 million, one of the highest settlements in a prisoner rights case in the history of the United States.

Unfortunately, Stephen Slevin is not alone. Take the case of the man in Otero County who was pulled over for expired registration and placed in solitary confinement for three months. His mental health deteriorated to the point where he would strip naked and cover himself with feces. Or the case of the 51-year-old mentally ill grandmother in Valencia County who was kept in solitary confinement for eight months, without a trial, and forced to sleep on the floor while she bled on herself because she was denied sanitary napkins.

Otero County settled its case for $2.9 million. Valencia County settled for $1.6 million. Insurance pays a portion of these awards, but taxpayers are left to foot the rest of the bill, and insurance costs go up. In these times of funding cuts for basic services, these cases are a tremendous drain on our coffers. Rather than continuing to pay these huge settlements, the system must be fixed.

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Since 2011, some modest improvements have been made in New Mexico. Our Corrections Department reports that the percentage of its prison population housed in solitary confinement has been cut roughly in half in recent years. I commend the department for this progress, but more is required. We need clear limits placed on the use of solitary confinement and greater transparency on how and when this punishment is imposed.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of prisoners – upward of 90 percent – will eventually be released back into our communities. The work we do to rehabilitate prisoners is essential to preserve public safety for all of us. Unfortunately, solitary confinement conflicts with this important goal, making prisoners more dangerous and difficult to reintegrate into our communities.

This bill does not interfere with the day-to-day operations of any facility. It does provide reasonable protection for the most vulnerable inmates in the system and gathers the information we need to assess the human and fiscal cost of solitary confinement. Across the United States, policymakers are recognizing that long-term solitary confinement is inhumane and an unnecessary drain on resources. It is time for our state to do the same. I invite the people of New Mexico to support HB 242 by contacting your legislators and the governor and urging them to support this bill.

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