Report examines solitary confinement in New Mexico

By Phaedra Haywood phaywood@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 10/24/19

Though studies show solitary confinement can have a devastating effect on mental health, New Mexico Corrections Department workers for years have opposed reforms, calling the practice a crucial tool for keeping prisons safe.

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Report examines solitary confinement in New Mexico

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Though studies show solitary confinement can have a devastating effect on mental health, New Mexico Corrections Department workers for years have opposed reforms, calling the practice a crucial tool for keeping prisons safe.

But the department’s first-ever quarterly report on its use of solitary confinement reveals the top reason inmates were held in solitary during the past three months wasn’t because they were a threat to themselves or others.

It was because they were awaiting a hearing.

The second most common reason inmates were confined alone in a cell for at least 22 hours a day was that they were awaiting transfer to another facility.

And while some of these inmates spent just a day or two in isolation, many spent weeks or even months awaiting their next hearing or a transfer.

Max Ortega III, a 47-year-old Raton man being held at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, has been held in solitary confinement awaiting trial since December, the report shows.

Corrections spokesman Eric Harrison said Ortega is not officially a state prisoner but is a Colfax County jail inmate being held under terms of a memorandum of understanding with that county.

Harrison said Ortega has been kept in solitary for nearly a year because his court date keeps getting postponed.

“In this situation we don’t have control over his trial date and the inmate does not have control over his trial date so that is the unfortunate situation there,” Harrison said. “It was ‘hopefully the trial is soon, the trial is soon,’ but at certain point, 10 months later, trial clearly is not soon. It’s time to do something.”

Harrison said Thursday that Director of Adult Prisons John Gay saw the report, released Wednesday, and “right now they are working to get him out of solitary.”

The spokesman said that when it comes to pending transfers, “there are a lot of moving parts.” But he said Gay is trying to streamline the transfer process so it happens more quickly.

The report was mandated by a law passed during the 2019 legislative session that restricts the use of solitary confinement for pregnant, juvenile and mentally ill inmates.

It requires all state and county correctional facilities to report the age, gender and ethnicity of each inmate placed or held in solitary during each three-month reporting period, as well as the reasons restricted housing was imposed and the dates when the inmate was put in and taken out of solitary.

While the report meets those requirements, the format in which it has been produced — a listing of each of the 1,160 times solitary was used, arranged alphabetically by the inmate’s last name — is so difficult to read that state Rep. Antonio”Moe” Maestas D-Albuquerque, and Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, two of the lawmakers who sponsored House Bill 364, initially read it wrong.

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