Dec. 19—The New Mexico Corrections Department appears to have done a quiet about-face on solitary confinement in its prisons — voluntarily limiting the use of the controversial practice after years of opposing any legislation that imposed even conservative limits on its ability to keep inmates in isolation.
The department stopped placing women in solitary confinement a year ago and capped all solitary stays at 30 days starting in July, department spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email last week.
The shift comes after corrections officials made a practice in recent years of resisting regulation of solitary confinement, calling it a critical tool in maintaining control inside prisons.
The news surprised civil rights advocates who fought to pass a law in 2019 prohibiting the department from imposing solitary confinement on pregnant women, juveniles and those with mental illness, plus requiring New Mexico's prisons and jails to begin issuing quarterly reports documenting the state's use of the practice.
Attorney Matthew Coyte — who has spent years lobbying for restrictions on solitary confinement and secured massive settlements from government agencies on behalf of clients held in solitary — said he hadn't heard about the change until The New Mexican asked him about it last week.
"We have to believe them, I guess, until we see otherwise," Coyte said. "It would be great if it was true ... then we would have to rejoice. If this is a turnaround in the policy ... then it's a good one. But we've got to trust and verify, right?"
New Mexico Prison & Jail Project director Steven Allen — who also spent years lobbying for solitary confinement reform in his previous post as policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico — was dubious when informed of the new protocol.
"I'd be surprised if this were true," Allen wrote in an email, adding his group has spoken to inmates who say they have been held in solitary confinement for longer than 30 days within the past six months.
"As far as I can tell, [the department's] policies on their website indicate that they're still allowed to hold people in solitary confinement for longer than 30 days at a stretch, and I can't find anything that indicates that they're no longer allowed to hold women in solitary," he wrote.
Harrison said Thursday the new practice is more of a directive than a policy — one handed down by new Director of Adult Prisons Gary Maciel.
He added the department still reserves the right to use solitary confinement — officially referred to as restrictive housing — for longer than 30 days, and with female inmates if necessary.
Harrison wrote the Corrections Department's goal "is to reduce the use."
Studies have shown solitary confinement — generally defined as keeping an inmate isolated in his or her cell without meaningful contact with others for 22 hours or more each day — has devastating effects on mental health.
Far from just making people feel lonely, Psychology Today reported in 2019, "solitary confinement as a punishment is closer to a form of torture," which can worsen physical and mental health problems, cause hallucinations and violent outbursts, and lead to self-harm or suicide.
Studies have found it can even cause physical changes in the the brain, decreasing the size of the part of the organ that plays a major role in learning and memory.
According to the latest report, the department — which houses about 6,000 inmates in 10 prisons — used solitary confinement 885 times during the three-month reporting period.
The report — which appears to provide data between late June and late September but also contains entries for people placed in solitary in February, April and May — says solitary wasn't used on any women or for longer than 30 days in the 90-day period it covers.
About 56 percent of the time [502 times], it was used on inmates whose behavior or actions threatened the safety of others. About 43 percent of the time [383 times], it was used on prisoners awaiting transfer review or bed space.
That represents a shift from the first round of reporting in late 2019, in which the department's reports indicated those awaiting trial and those pending transfer made up the bulk of the inmates housed in solitary. Inmates displaying threatening behavior came in a distant third.
Coyte wrote he doesn't believe the department's reports can be trusted.
"I know this report is largely fictitious because I am aware of many people who are in solitary right now, but whose biographical information does not appear on this list," Coyte wrote in an email regarding the latest report.
Coyte and others are dubious about Corrections Department reporting, which they complain may indicate the agency is meeting the letter of the 2019 law but in actuality violates its spirit.
"There is no uniformity about how the data is coming in, and the systems are naturally biased towards hiding data rather than sharing it," said Allen.
Barron Jones, a senior strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the organization began analyzing the reports in 2019 in an attempt to create a public database and gather information that would inform potential legislation aimed at stricter controls on solitary confinement.
But it has been difficult to pull conclusions from them, he said.
"Looking at the information, since early on we've seen huge problems in the reports," he said. "Just trying to get the information in some sort of way we can upload it to the database has been a challenge, to say the least."
The law requires that all state and county correctional facilities 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. According to the law, "every correctional facility shall" produce a report.
But Jones said the department has elected to publish one systemwide report instead of data for each prison. Since the initial round of reports resulted in a lawsuit from a man held in solitary for nearly a year, the department has removed the names from the reports — making it nearly impossible to track individuals or fact-check the records.
Coyte said in a phone interview the reports were much more useful when they had people's names on them.
"Then if a client's family tells you they are in solitary, at least you can look them up to see if they are telling the truth," he said. "They have deliberately hidden those names to keep us from finding out. It's very upsetting."
Harrison, the Corrections Department spokesman, defended the reports in a recent email.
"What I can tell you is that the reports that we post online and send to the Legislative Library each quarter include the age, gender, ethnicity, reason for placement, and the dates of placement for every inmate in restrictive housing which is required by law," he wrote. "Unique identifiers such as names are not required, and are not part of the reports for safety reasons."
New Mexico's use of solitary confinement has long been a moving target.
The state ranked fourth in the nation when it came to the use of solitary, according to a report released by the state branch of the ACLU in March 2019.
The report said the state has routinely underreported its use, in part because it has no clear definition of "solitary" and instead uses "multiple and constantly-changing terms" to refer to the practice.
For example, inmates in medical segregation and those living in higher-security facilities often spend 22 hours or more alone in their cells but aren't always included in restrictive housing counts.
"I'm certain there are people being held in New Mexico Department of Corrections in solitary confinement for more than 30 days," Jones said. "They are picking and choosing what they list and they are tweaking the definition according to their policies, I believe, to circumvent the rules."
The study said the state reported in September 2019 about 4 percent of its then-7,000 prisoners were being held in solitary. But after examining daily population numbers obtained through public records requests, ACLU researchers calculated more than double that number of prisoners were in solitary at the time.
Harrison did not provide an updated estimate on the percentage of state inmates held in solitary.