SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday vetoed legislation that would have curbed the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails for mentally ill inmates and minors, drawing the ire of defense attorneys and civil liberties groups who claim the practice causes lasting psychological harm.
The two-term Republican governor, a former prosecutor, said limiting solitary confinement could actually endanger inmates and corrections officers by limiting the options of prison officials.
“(The bill) oversimplifies and misconstrues isolated confinement in such a way so as to eliminate flexibility and endanger the lives of inmates and staff alike,” Martinez wrote in her veto message.
But backers of the vetoed legislation pointed out that other states – including the neighboring states of Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma – have already enacted limits on the practice when it comes to juveniles.
“The rest of the country is way ahead of us on this and other criminal justice issues,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill during this year’s legislative session.
New Mexico counties have paid millions of dollars in recent years to settle lawsuits filed by individuals who were placed in solitary confinement for extended periods.
Doña Ana County commissioners agreed to pay $15.5 million in 2013 to Stephen Slevin, a former inmate who argued he was deprived of humane treatment while held for nearly two years in the county’s jail.
More recently, Sandoval County agreed to a $1.8 million settlement this year to resolve a lawsuit alleging the time a mentally ill mother of three spent in solitary confinement at the county jail led to her suicide.
Matthew Coyte, an Albuquerque civil rights attorney who has filed several of the lawsuits and advocated for this year’s bill, said backers of the legislation will try again in future years.
“I don’t think the public has any desire for children or the seriously mentally ill to be placed in solitary,” he said. “In the meantime, the state will continue to face lawsuits.”
The New Mexico Association of Counties initially opposed the legislation filed during this year’s session, but ended up taking a neutral stance on it after changes were made to address concerns, the group’s executive director, Steve Kopelman, said Thursday.
One concern raised by county jail officials was that many counties with smaller populations might not have psychiatrists or other trained mental health professionals on staff.
“If the governor had signed the bill, we would have been prepared to deal with it,” he told the Journal.
The vetoed bill would have allowed prison officials to hold inmates with a serious mental illness in solitary confinement for up to 48 hours, but only in cases in which there was an imminent threat of physical harm to the inmate or another person. The corrections administrator would have also had to notify medical staff and prepare a written plan to transition the inmate out of isolated confinement.
In addition, the legislation, House Bill 175, would have prohibited solitary confinement for pregnant inmates or those under 18 years old being held in juvenile detention facilities.
The bill defined solitary confinement as “restricted housing” – or confining an inmate to a cell for at least 22 hours a day without social interaction.
As of January 2016, the state Corrections Department reported it housed about 460 inmates – or 6.5 percent of the inmate population in state-run prisons – in solitary confinement, though previous department officials claimed they worked to reduce that figure.