By David Safavian and Chris McNutt, ACUF Center for Criminal Justice Reform
Winston Churchill once famously noted: “One of the best tests of whether we are truly a civilized people is the temper and mood of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals.” Gov. Susana Martinez is facing just such a test in consideration of legislation that limits the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s correctional institutions.
Solitary confinement (or “restricted housing”) is used far too frequently across the nation. While there may be rare situations that necessitate isolation of an inmate, the psychological impacts of solitary confinement require that reasonable limits be placed on its use.
By any measure, time spent in restrictive housing is beyond unpleasant. Inmates in solitary confinement sit alone in a closed cell, free of human interaction, for at least 22 hours a day. Isolated cells usually don’t contain any natural light, and the offender is unable to bring personal belongings with him or her. Contact with family members — a key part of reducing recidivism — is reduced or eliminated, as is access to education classes and religious programming.
Because solitary confinement can lead to serious mental impairments and psychological harm, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s has defined prolong use as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.”
Unfortunately, the use of solitary confinement is not limited to violent inmates. Other justifications for sending prisoners to “the hole” include: inmates who are difficult to manage, sexual assault victims, inmates who violate prison policies and those who may be vulnerable to abuse by other prisoners. In fact, the overuse of solitary confinement has cost New Mexico taxpayers more than $20 million in the last six years to settle cases alleging abuse.
Beyond the financial impact and the negative effects on individual offenders, overuse of solitary confinement harms New Mexico communities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted that 20 percent of all state offenders spend some time in restrictive housing. As a result, many of these offenders will suffer long-term psychological damage. Yet, most will complete their sentences and eventually return home, carrying their mental health issues with them.
Earlier this month, the New Mexico Legislature passed the Isolated Confinement Act (House Bill 175), a criminal justice reform bill designed to prevent the overuse of solitary confinement in state prisons and county jails. This bill is the product of years of efforts in the Legislature, after lengthy discussions with corrections and law enforcement experts, mental health professionals and faith leaders in the state. It contains commonsense reforms that will provide accountability and transparency, respect human dignity, and likely end costly litigation. Two weeks ago, the ICA was approved in the state House and Senate. It is now pending before Martinez.
Given its impact on human dignity, mental hygiene, legal liability and ultimately on local communities, the overuse of solitary confinement makes little sense. It should be limited in application and used only in extreme circumstances that are closely monitored. The ICA would appear to achieve these goals.
Conservatives believe that public safety is the foremost responsibility of the government. This includes safety of the incarcerated, as well as safety of the employees who work in correctional facilities. HB 175 does not eliminate the use of solitary confinement, but rather limits its use to only the most necessary of circumstances.
Conservatives also support governmental accountability and transparency. HB 175 contains provisions that require corrections officials to submit reports every three months, detailing their use of solitary confinement. The reports include reasons for the use of restricted housing for each inmate, the demographic breakdown and the period of time each inmate served in isolation. By closely monitoring the use of restricted housing, abuse and misuse will decrease. Thus, New Mexico will further protect itself from civil rights lawsuits, ultimately saving millions of taxpayer dollars.
Finally, we note that conservatives believe in fostering human dignity. The ICA would accomplish that goal by constraining the use of restricted housing on juveniles, pregnant women and inmates with serious mental disabilities.
The legislation pending on Martinez’s desk is consistent with conservative ideals regarding government accountability, fiscal responsibility and human dignity. Enacting the ICA provides an opportunity to prove Churchill correct.