Wednesday, February 12, 2014

NMCD Commits to Reducing Segregation

The fundamental purpose of the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) is the delivery of public safety services to the State of New Mexico through effective correctional practices.  For the NMCD, this means returning offenders back to our communities better able to become productive, taxpaying citizens than when they entered the prison system.  A complex task, to do so, the NMCD must constantly evaluate its operations so that known strengths may be maximized for effectiveness, while its vulnerabilities may be mitigated or eliminated.  While orchestration of operations through well developed policy is essential for safe prison operations, the NMCD also recognizes that without an element of meaningful evaluation of its policies and practices, the NMCD’s operations may easily become outdated and ineffective, or even worse, inequitable poor organizational habit.  In pursuit of objective review of its management and use of segregation, in 2012 the NMCD sought partnership with the Vera Institute to externally evaluate of its operations to independently identify its operational strengths and vulnerabilities, and opportunities for growth that may be intelligently pursued.  The underpinning logic leading to NMCD’s request for assistance from the Vera Institute, the results of its partnership and the NMCD’s action planning is summarized in this report.

Following the riot of February 02, 1980, characterized as the nation’s most bloody prison riot to this day, New Mexico’s prison operations grew structurally in its ability to more effectively classify and house inmates based on risk a risk driven model rightfully focused upon the threat by which an individual or group of individuals (referred to as a Security Threat Group – STG) posed to the safety and security of New Mexico’s prison environments.  In the years to follow, based upon this well orchestrated classification and housing paradigm, violence in New Mexico prisons has been minimized.  While the model developed by the NMCD serves as a prototype for many other states in our nation today, NMCD’s use of this work model, its policies and operations, have not undergone a comprehensive outcome evaluation for many years.  As NMCD began to look at its various systems of inmate management, approximately nine and one half percent (9.6%) of its total prison population was noted housed in segregation environments.  The majority of those inmates in segregation were individuals in which the Department sought to protect from victimization while a smaller minority were those offenders, referred to as predatory, who pervasively victimized other inmates.  A potential collateral consequence of any correctional practice be the reality that approximately ninety-six percent (96%) of inmates remanded to the NMCD’s custody will return to New Mexico’s neighborhoods at some point.  In November 2011, these realities, combined with New Mexico’s current rate of recidivism hovering about forty-six percent (46%) led Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel to call for evaluation and revalidation of the Department’s classification system, with specific emphasis upon of its use of segregation.  To do so would assure that NMCD’s prison operations did not unwittingly hinder the development of creative programming solutions relating to the re-entry of offenders to New Mexico’s neighborhoods.

Moreover, unrealistic expectations that the field of corrections can solve the problems of crime and recidivism alone continue to exist in our State.  Specifically, once an offender is sentenced by New Mexico’s courts, the field of corrections is expected to redress the long standing shortcomings of our state’s systems of education, economy, and social inequities.  To complicate matters worse, segregation, while an operational reality of safe prison management, is also an expensive undertaking.  As the NMCD remains committed to intelligent stewardship of its limited resources for public safety service delivery, its intentional fiscal responsibility also becomes part of New Mexico’s larger solution for economic recovery.  Any reduction in criminal reoffending results in a lower burden to New Mexico’s taxpayers, relating to not only to the direct costs of incarceration, but a reduction in the indirect social and economic liability associated with crime victimization as well. More simply stated, offenders who do not engage in criminal behavior do not take up the time and resources of our existing and limited criminal justice resources, while at the same time become contributors to our tax base and the social order.    

Finally, there is a growing demand in our State for government to become more effective and open to scrutiny.   Public confidence in our State’s overall criminal justice system has become fragile and a general intolerance for any failure exists.  Consequently, New Mexico’s prisons can no longer operate as closed institutions and environments.  On the other hand, culturally speaking, like most other public safety organizations across the country, the NMCD has been resistant to external evaluation.  Traditionally, in its pursuit of solutions relating to the complexities of prison management and other correctional programs, the NMCD has suffered a long-standing tendency to look only internally, for remedies.  

As discussed, the success by which the NMCD may achieve its mission and organizational purpose is based in its capacity to reduce the State’s criminal recidivism rate.  Accordingly, its culture, work models, policies, and operations must be viewed through this single public safety lens.  As such, the NMCD must demonstrate the courage to seek the assistance of external to objectively identify opportunities for improvement.

Specifically relating to the efficiency and effectiveness of its use of segregation, through consultation with executive and legislative leadership, NMCD has been working with the VERA Institute through their Segregation Reduction Project.  This collaboration will result, and has already resulted in, a smaller percentage of inmates in segregation. Inmates now being released from segregation will have greater access to a variety of educational and life skills programming to better meet individual needs. Inmates that absolutely must remain in segregation due to predatory behavior will also receive more security sensitive programming tailored to their more violent criminogenic needs and patterns.

In October 2011, the VERA Institute published a paper through the University of California Press titled Prisons Within Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United States. The issues addressed in the paper include an increase in the use of segregation by prison officials by 40% nationally from the years 1995 to 2000, higher rates of recidivism for offenders released from segregation into our neighborhoods, compared with those released from general population, and higher increased daily operations fiscal costs of housing inmates in segregation. 

In March of 2012 NMCD opened collaborative dialog with VERA. September 2012 and January 2013 the VERA institute visited four of NMCD’s statewide prisons (Lea County Correctional Facility, New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility, Central New Mexico Correctional Facility and the Penitentiary of New Mexico) to assess and evaluate our use of segregation its prison operations.  These prisons represent the bulk of NMCD’s population and provide a thorough representation of the wide demographics of our population  Through NMCD’s partnership with the Vera Institute it realized that, while lower than many states, NMCD does sustain an elevated percentage of inmates housed in segregation, as compared with other states who may model better practices for the Department.  As a result of this collaboration, the NMCD realized opportunities for operational improvement specifically relating to: (1) the Department’s mixing of different types of segregation inmates; (2) the Department’s lack of programming for high risk offenders and; (3) the ease by which the Department’s disciplinary process placed inmates in segregation. 

The NMCD considers its collaboration with the Vera Institute inextricably related to its future organizational success and is therefore committed to using their findings to enhance its policies and practices to not only drive more effective and efficient public safety services, but also assist the VERA Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project in developing data and research to assist other states.  Accordingly, the NMCD has assimilated the recommendations of the VERA Institute and developed management action planning to generate its growth.  On the next page you will find summary points for the action plan.

In its consideration of the opportunity to improve upon its traditional mixing of different types of inmates in segregation, the NMCD not only recognized the need to reduce the number of inmates in segregation but also determined that many of its segregation inmates were inactive (not currently exhibiting predatory conduct) gang members, previously held in administrative segregation based on a sole designation as a validated member of an STG. Based on recognition of this finding the NMCD’s implementing activities include:

Establishment of an alternative environment designed to house inmates who are inactive gang members demonstrating non-predatory conduct. To date, the NMCD has targeted approximately 140 inmates for release from segregation to a special general population unit identified as the Department’s Restoration to Population Program.  The goal of this initiative shall be the eventual transition of these inmates into a regular general population setting, preceded by renouncement of their gang membership.

To achieve the necessary adjustments to its housing environments, the NMCD is moving its Alternative Placement Area (APA - Mental Health Unit for higher security Level 5 and 6 Inmates) to the Penitentiary of New Mexico Level 6, maximum security, facility. The purpose of this move is twofold in design. The NMCD must reposition itself to secure all of New Mexico’s higher risk inmates into the facility that was originally designed for housing such classification of inmates. Secondly, based on its own internal evaluation, corroborated in the findings of both a previous cultural assessment performed by the National Institute for Corrections and its VERA Institute partners, over the course of many years, the function of the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF) has become too variegated to operate  most efficiently.  Accordingly, the APA, the most hazardous of its missions will be removed from this facility.  The net effect of this move shall be the elimination of 48 segregation beds from NMCD’s overall count. It should also be noted that inmates in this unit are primarily protective custody inmates (not predatory inmates), therefore the Department shall continue to study alternative placement for the specific needs of these inmates. The challenges the NMCD shall face in this specific transition may be the inmates themselves as many have become comfortable in a segregation setting.  

The Department is also expanding utilization of its General Population-1 (GP-1) Unit at the Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF) to house inmates in a general population setting who were historically placed into protective custody segregation.  The GP-1 unit will house a greater number of inmates such as sex offenders, inactive gang members, known informants, and others who otherwise require placement into protective custody segregation.  These inmates will congregate and program together in what is also effectively their own general population unit.   These inmates essentially have the same privileges and programming as other general population inmates, but this placement shall serve to avoid the safety and security issues that would otherwise arise if they were to congregate or interact with other general population inmates. 

Additionally, the NMCD has entered into a contract with Otero County to house NMCD inmates who are primarily sex offenders and former law enforcement officials.  These inmates also congregate and program together in what is also essentially their own general population unit.  Programming is designed to meet the specific needs of these offenders, and includes long-term treatment programs specifically designed for convicted sex offenders, who will ultimately be released to our neighborhoods but often struggle to secure an adequate parole plan.  It is important to note that gang members will not be assigned to this facility. 

Regarding NMCD’s opportunity for improvement relating to the amount of programming delivered to high risk offenders, the Department recognized that the State’s economic downturn of 2009 resulted in a parallel downturn in all offender programming, as more limited resources were centered upon prison security.  Today’s NMCD recognizes the need for a more comprehensive approach to assuring the safety and security of its prisons; a business model that respects the collateral consequences of recidivism and seeks to balance the necessary social control of its operations with adequate social support necessary to achieve public safety.  Accordingly, the NMCD is implementing a greater number of new promising strategies to address the expectations of our State, to include, but not necessarily limited to:     

As previously mentioned, in its efforts to seek housing alternatives for members of validated security threat groups not currently not engaged in predatory behavior, the NMCD has designated a new housing environment at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (SNMCF) where offender programming may be better tailored specifically to their needs. Specifically relating to inmates with pervasive history of gang related crimes, the NMCD is committed to the development and implementation of new programming aimed at providing inmates a greater sense of identity and purpose that may supersede their traditional gang identities. An example of a promising strategy currently being implemented is the Department’s newly developed partnership with Joni and Friends, Wheels for the World.  This program being implementated at the SNMCF and designed to provide these inmates with daily meaningful work refurbishing wheelchairs for individuals in third world countries who are handicap and could not otherwise afford one.  The program shall seek to create a greater sense of service for these inmates as through their work they will “provide freedom for others as they earn their own”.  

In its efforts to emphasize the use of Level VI segregation for violent, predatory inmates instead of housing inmates for protective custody purposes, the NMCD also realizes the necessity and utility of programming for those inmates posing the greatest risk to the safety and security of its prisons and our State’s neighborhoods (Level VI predatory inmates).  Because a number of these inmates, who will remain housed in Level VI administrative segregation, will eventually return to New Mexico’s neighborhoods, there is an opportunity and need for developing and maintaining a safe environment for limited congregate programming to meet the greater needs of these inmates.  Accordingly, the Department is implementing its Motivating Offender Change Program, a strategy used by the State of Washington that has yielded promising recidivism reduction results.  This program allows trained staff members to facilitate cognitive behavioral programming to safely and humanely restrained active predatory inmates.  Programming delivery is supported by appropriate interactions between these inmates, with the focus on helping the inmates develop empathy and respect for each other as human beings (not rivals or objects) and more productive behaviors and thought processes for life outside of prison.   The NMCD is also reviewing and assessing other congregate programming alternatives for these Level VI gang members, as it understands that the majority of these inmates will eventually discharge or parole from prison.       

Additionally, the Department will be piloting a program more commonly known as “Cease Fire”, a policing initiative that has led to meaningful reductions in violence in our nation’s neighborhoods.  Adjusted to suit New Mexico’s prison environments, NMCD’s Cease Fire Program will involve a formalized process for reducing prison gang activity through a clear baseline for inmate accountability, using creative and immediate positive and negative consequences that may serve as alternatives to segregation while working to incentivize rejection of inmate gang identification.

Finally, regarding the historical ease by which the NMCD’s disciplinary process has placed inmates in segregation, the NMCD notes that has been its traditional practice to this point.  Based upon its self evaluation and partnership with the Vera Institute, the NMCD fully recognizes the necessity to shift away from this philosophy.  Wardens and Disciplinary Officers are now being retrained to use alternative forms of deterrents or consequences for inmate misconduct, such as loss of good time or privileges. This new emphasis will still provide deterrents and consequences to inmates for their misconduct, but will do so without placing them in segregation and the resultant limitations on their access to programming or congregate activities, therefore enhancing our public safety delivery efforts. 

While more specific action planning regarding the outcomes of NMCD’s collaboration with the Vera Institute may be referenced in Appendix of this summary, the Department will remain committed to the long term goals of more effective and efficient public safety service delivery, as characterized and summarized by its changes in its use of segregation. For example, planning is underway to provide inmates serving lengthy or life sentences with opportunities to earn a college degree through seminary attendance so that they may assist in the delivery of faith based services and other programming and become force multipliers for staff and inmate cultural change. Inmates graduating from seminary may be used to teach inmates needing GED preparation.  Other inmates serving lengthy or life sentences who formally possessed meaningful job skills will be assessed for  their potential to teach work skills to other inmates, more likely to be released.  In its work with the Vera Institute, NMCD also noted the recommendation of a Decompression Unit for those inmates in segregation who are near release to our communities. NMCD is currently in the planning phase for development of such a program upon the completion of the above inmate population changes.  

Increased access to programming will require additional short-term funding.  There will be an immediate need for additional instructors and correctional officers to monitor the increased inmate movement. The NMCD will more aggressively recruit and retain correctional officers through more competitive salaries and focused training.   Since predatory or high risk inmates require more security, there will not be an immediate decrease in the number of officers needed to ensure prison safety.  The long-term savings will be realized by a reducing recidivism through appropriate programming for inmates based on risk and needs. However those savings will not be achieved until late in FY15 or later.

Additionally, the NMCD is pursuing a host of creative funding options, ranging from operational cost reduction initiatives (the Sustainability in Prisons Project), vocational training and certification programs where NMCD can provide on-the-job training to inmates on infrastructure preventative maintenance, and Corrections Industries projects (the Old Main Revitalization and Inmate Hobby Craft Sales) to generate funding, independent of tax revenues.     

In closing, the NMCD shall continue the development and use of segregation policies and practices providing meaningful and stimulating programs and conditions for its segregation inmates, along with alternative placement and ongoing treatment for non-predatory and mentally ill inmates.  In its work with the Vera Institute and other state government stakeholders, the NMCD has remained transparent and open to improvement in its uses of segregation.  More importantly, the Department will continue its transparency in the future as it identifies more areas for improvement.  As experienced in its collaboration with the Vera Institute, the NMCD shall continue to embrace all reasonable efforts aimed exploring new ways to improve or enhance its public safety mission.  The overarching goal of the NMCD shall be to reduce the number of inmates held in segregation by half from 9.6% to approximately 5% of its inmate population by January 2015.