Tuesday, February 2, 2016



The 2016 Legislative Session has arrived. This is one in a series of posts from the staff of the New Mexico Corrections Department. We intend to send a daily update to all our legislators with key points, facts, figures, personal stories describing life here at NMCD.

what is the nmcd philosophy on the use of segregation reform?

In 2014, New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel spent 48-hours in solitary confinement at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, Santa Fe. He spent his time in one of the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners who are being held in isolation. His goal: to get a feel for what an inmate experiences being confined to a cell alone for 23 hours a day.

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 2012 study 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, “Im glad I did it, but Im not going to do it again.” He knows that its a necessary tool in prison management, but its 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 cant have predators preying upon our staff or other inmates,” he said. “I cant 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?”

The prison is taking steps to make sure its the offenders who pose a risk who are put in isolation, rather than inmates who were preyed on, and to identify gang leaders, not lower-level followers, for segregation. Inmates in segregation need a clear path out through a stepped process that rewards good behavior with increased privileges. If an inmate handles the privileges – additional photographs or visits or phone calls, for example – with continued good behavior, hell get a step closer to moving out of segregation.
“Its a place where the most dangerous people need to be,” Marcantel said, but, “you behave your way in and you behave your way out.” However, “part of intelligent use of this is making sure that its not used on people who are already mentally ill,” Marcantel said.
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 inmatesbehavior.
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 thats not possible, having some preparation for reintegrating with other people.

Already theres a pilot program that puts the most violent prisoners in segregation into a communal setting where theyre confined to security chairs so they cant 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, its 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. “Weve got to do everything we can to send people back better from prison than when they came.”

Prior to the reforms, how was segregated housing used in the department?
The New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) used segregation to house disciplinary sanctioned inmates, protective custody inmates and inmates deemed a threat to security. In 1998 NMCD began the level system and inmates were placed in level 6 (our maximum security) primarily to counteract the influence of prison gangs in our prisons. Following Secretary Marcantels appointment in 2011, as we sought to move the focus of NMCDs success more intentionally upon public safety (reducing recidivism), our goals changed. What had been the Departments previous intent to have quiet and incident free facilities (that followed the 1980 riot and the 1999 killing of Correctional Officer Ralph Garcia) had unwittingly resulted in almost 12% of the NMCD inmate population being held in segregation. Of even greater concern, as NMCD looked closer and more qualitatively at those inmates composing the percentage of inmates held in segregation, it learned that 75% of those inmates held in segregated environments were held there for protective custody purposes.

What led the department to identify the need to reform the use of segregated housing?
The high percentage of inmates held in segregation for protective custody reasons indicated that the department was not using its maximum security environments appropriately from both public safety and economic perspectives. Because correctional management rarely fails as a result of the more apparent larger scale incidents we experience occasionally, but more often by the repetition of less obvious critical decisions that occur over time, the department required an objective examination of these long standing operations to achieve greater clarity and objectivity for its corrective action planning. Accordingly, the department partnered with the VERA Institute of Justice to undertake external evaluation of its use of segregation as a correctional management tool. The primary findings of the evaluation centered upon the departments overuse of segregation for disciplinary sanctions (lacking creative alternative sanction options), and the departments overuse of segregation for protective custody inmates (most of whom were primarily inactive prison gang members).

Before implementing reforms, were any specific problems with the use of segregation identified?
Upon appointment as Secretary, lawmakers requested review of our use of segregation and voiced concern for potential overuse. Following our initial examination of those inmates and the circumstances associated with our segregation population, we noted that the longer term use of segregation as a risk mitigation strategy had been driven by a victim, rather than a predator, focus. Over the decades that followed the aforementioned infamous 1980 riot, based upon its efforts to isolate and mitigate our very real prison gang threats, the department had unwittingly adopted the victim protection focus. Over time, the department crept increasingly toward wider spread use of segregation for the solution for all its threats. Consequently, the department lacked solutions for a growing population of inactive gang members that had resulted from its work in isolating and mitigating its gang threat. Moreover, distinguishing inmates held for the purpose of threat mitigation from those held for disciplinary reasons had also become difficult, because for many years the department had not examined how inmates either entered or should be released from its segregated environments. Inmates broadly classified as too dangerous for trained correctional officers to handle that were held in segregation were routinely released from these environments straight to New Mexicos neighborhoods.

What reforms were implemented?
The following initiatives have been implemented to date based upon a shared understanding that, should the department succeed in reforming the deepest ends of its operations, all other reforms will become far more manageable.

1.         Inmates can no longer serve more than 30 days in punitive disciplinary sanctions to include time served prior to disciplinary hearing.

2.         Inactive gang members are debriefed and placed in a separated general population which NMCD refers to as Restoration to Population Program (RPP). Within this special population setting, inmates experience a number of programs that were not previously accessible, to include but not limited to RDAP, GED, and work skills.

3.         Former law enforcement officers have been placed within separated general population.

4.         Sex offenders were and continue to be placed in separated general populations where they now undergo specialized evidence based sexual offender treatment.

5.         To further brand the necessary change, the traditional reference to Level 6 has been renamed the Predatory Behavior Management Program (PMP). Only those inmates specifically defined as predatory by their behavior are placed into this program. It is a program designed to prepare inmates for successful return to general population; a prison within the larger prison system. PMP utilizes clearly defined steps to allow the inmate to be successful and to reject their predatory inclinations.

6.         NMCD has eliminated the use of any long term protective custody segregation.

7.         Inmates are no longer released directly from segregated environments to New Mexicos neighborhoods. Inmates who have 180 days to a projected release date are placed in their own special management holding where they are provided congregate movement and programming to prepare them for release to the community.

8.         A Drug Suppression Unit has been created for inmates who have received guilty findings for dealing in dangerous drugs. Previously the department would house such inmates in segregation. Inmates who have received guilty findings for dealing in dangerous drugs are now assigned to this special management setting and given appropriate programming.

Do you have any data on the outcomes of the reforms so far?

Our percentage of inmates in segregation was reduced to a low of 6.5% in recent months, however this percentage does fluctuate depending on inmate actions in the prisons. NMCDs goal is 5%. The goal is to minimize protective custody and to eliminate all long term protective custody segregation.

RPP inmates have provided positive feedback. They are grateful for the opportunity and they are taking the leadership to move beyond inactive status to renounced status. In many cases, RPP inmates write letters outlining their appreciation for the departments new direction and investment in their future. On one occasion, a former organized prison gang member wrote an editorial for an area newspaper outlining the profound changes underway in New Mexico prisons. In collaboration with the departments Public Affairs Office, RPP inmates have produced a well-received short video aimed at positively encouraging at risk youth to learn from their mistakes and make more informed positive decisions for their lives.

Appeals for placement into the Predatory Behavior Program now differ from appeals traditionally received by former Level 6 placements. Level 6 placement appeals (the traditional segregation paradigm) were based on procedural errors and consequently very legalistic in nature. Because placement in the Predatory Behavior Program now involves successful completion of programming, appeals associated with these placements are now primarily driven by our inmatesperceptions that the new program requires too much of them. These marked changes in the qualitative nature of appeals reasonably suggest that our past overuse of segregation had unwittingly resulted in perceptions for our more difficult inmates as environments to do easier time.

While our policies, systems, and programs for better managing our use of segregation have changed dramatically, these changes would be no more than new ideas and administrative documents without our human capital…those men and women at our line level translating these changes into meaningful action. Consequently, in our efforts to transform both our inmate and organizational culture, we have remained committed to remaining in touch with the emotions of human capital, those who perform the real work within our prisons. Accordingly, NMCDs staff, particularly those who make up our growing guiding coalition, have been the true champions for our current successful outcomes.

Undoubtedly, in the initial stages of our change process, fear and opposition existed for the changed vision (particularly the release of inactive gang members from segregation). Through our internal development of a small guiding coalition of staff, coupled with our intentional maintenance of both executive commitment and urgency, as our larger number of those staff less inclined to embrace the new strategies have observed the success that have followed, our guiding change coalition has grown and ownership of the new programs have increased. For example, policy regarding the operations of our new Predatory Behavior Program was developed by line and middle management staff. Consequently, we are extraordinarily proud of the men and women of this department who have remained committed to our core functions, while enduring the short-term discomforts of openly turning away from unsuccessful tactics toward these more sustainable and accountable practices. Undoubtedly, the courage and work of staff will now have an everlasting impact on both the NMCD and public safety of New Mexicos neighborhoods well into the future.

All of us at the NMCD are humbled with the opportunity to be a part of the dialog surrounding this important issue and this critical moment as we experience change in our nation’s criminal justice system.

Ø  In 2012, 10.1% of NMCD inmates in restrictive housing (segregation) was recently at a low of 6.5 %. Rates fluctuate depending on security concerns. Our goal is 5%.

Ø  In 2012, 75% inmates in restrictive housing were there for protective custody reasons. We eliminated protective custody in long-term restrictive housing.

Ø  PNM North is no longer referred to as Level 6. It is a Predatory Behavior Management Program Facility.

Ø  Inmates who engage in predatory behavior are given programming so they can successfully return to general population.


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