ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Eight months of Jan Green’s life, 24 hours a day, was spent in a cell the size of a “closet.” Amenities included a concrete floor with open drain, toilet, and perpetually leaking ceiling.
“I should have been in a hospital,” she said, citing her mental illness. “But they threw me behind bars.”
Green’s story was one of those told to a room of about 75 people as part of the Stop Solitary Confinement Panel on Thursday in Albuquerque.
Hosted by The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the NM Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the panel addressed issues of solitary confinement using testimony of experts and former detainees.
Green, a former solitary confinement inmate, was housed in Valencia County jail for two and a half years, for hitting her husband with a frying pan “during an episode.”
Green, who said she has PTSD from her ordeal, said she did not understand why she was in jail and nobody tried to help her.
“They would taunt me, they would forget to feed me,” she said, describing the guards as “very cruel.”
After her release, Green filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the Valencia County jail with the help of Matthew Coyte, an attorney and current president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association board.
“You have to make it financially unacceptable to leave people in these holes,” Coyte said, adding that the lawsuit was settled for $1.6 million.
Now living with her daughter in Minnesota, Green said she struggles to this day; she doesn’t like crowds, has extreme anxiety and a lack of confidence.
“I was rather strong,” Green said, thinking back on the years before incarceration. “It’s difficult for me to be alone now.”
Coyte said a bill presented in Santa Fe this year sought to limit the use of solitary confinement against the seriously mentally ill, children and pregnant women. It passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
“We will get to this stage in New Mexico,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Martinez vetoed the legislation last month, saying it could endanger corrections officers and inmates 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 April 6 veto message.
Vince Ward, attorney for Chelsea Manning and panel member, said his client was confined in a Marine Corps facility for nine months, in a cell for 23 hours without any “meaningful” human contact.”
Ward said there was “no doubt” Manning – convicted of espionage – suffered from the confinement and mistreatment, leading her to attempt suicide – her punishment being more solitary confinement.
“I wasn’t sure that Chelsea would make it,” he said.
Due to be released in a few weeks, Manning is at Fort Leavenworth and no longer in solitary confinement, thanks to help from the ACLU and Amnesty International.
“Chelsea still to this day suffers, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “The toll this has taken on her has been quite immense.”
Amy Fettig, deputy director for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said one of the problems is that so few people in the public know about solitary confinement.
There are up to 100,000 people, on any given day, subjected to solitary confinement, Fettig said. Every year 20 percent of the prison population, over two million people, go through solitary confinement at some point in time.
“That comes at an enormous human cost,” she said, referencing Green’s and Manning’s cases. “These were literally prisons within prisons.”
Fettig said the way solitary confinement is practiced in America is a product of mass incarceration, adding that Fettig said prisons are being used as “default” mental health hospitals.
“We should not be treating all our mentally ill people behind bars,” she said. “It’s the absolute worst place to do it”
Fettig said jails and prisons are overwhelmed and don’t have the appropriate resources or training for mentally ill, but the blame is not fully theirs.
“That is a problem with our society that we accept that,” she said. “Every one of us is implicated in it.”
At 10 percent, New Mexico is one of the highest users of solitary confinement “across the board” Fettig said.
Colorado, which has drastically decreased use of solitary confinement, is an example of change, she said. The state has seen a decrease in use of force and violence against officers as an effect.
She advised to keep working at the state level, the community level and the national level toward change.
“We can do it,” she said. “The problem is not knowing how, the problem is not having the willpower.”