NEW MEXICO DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS
The practice, which has become overused in American prisons in recent decades, is used to isolate inmates who are considered dangerous and to punish inmates who break certain rules. It has been criticized as inhumane and ineffective in terms of rehabilitating offenders, the great majority of whom eventually are released. According to a by the Department of Justice, of the population studied, “Nearly 30% of prisoners and 22% of jail inmates diagnosed with serious psychological distress (SPD) had spent time in restrictive housing units in 2011–12.” Furthermore, “About a quarter of prison inmates and 35% of jail inmates who had spent 30 days or longer in segregation or solitary confinement had SPD. Nearly identical rates of SPD were reported among inmates who had spent only a day in restrictive housing.”
Secretary Marcantel stated, “I’m glad I did it, but I’m not going to do it again.” He knows that it’s a necessary tool in prison management, but it’s one that must be managed appropriately.
Marcantel believes there is no substitute for the use of solitary confinement to isolate inmates who pose threats. “People are not sent to prison to die, so I can’t have predators preying upon our staff or other inmates,” he said. “I can’t just allow unfettered access of people who want to kill other people.” But, he said, “The reality is that it’s a smaller number of people who come to our prisons that are bona fide, predatory, psychopathic criminals than we've grown used to placing in segregation. Besides that, who among us want to live next to someone who was released directly from a segregation into a neighborhood?”
Marcantel has challenged the administrative law judges who hear disciplinary cases to consider more alternatives before segregation, such as loss of good time, visiting privileges or access to commissary items, to modify inmates’ behavior.
Marcantel has also ended the practice of releasing an inmate directly from solitary into the outside world without transitioning back into the general population or, in cases where that’s not possible, having some preparation for reintegrating with other people.
Already there’s a pilot program that puts the most violent prisoners in segregation into a communal setting where they’re confined to security chairs so they can’t hurt one another, but they have human contact and are led through some concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy. Whether or not those inmates will soon be released, it’s a step toward lessening the isolation of the segregation experience.
“Somewhere between 96 and 97 percent of the people in our custody right now are coming back to our neighborhoods, whether anybody likes it or not,” Marcantel said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to send people back better from prison than when they came.”