4OYS goes inside solitary confinement

Created: 05/20/2014 10:30 PM
By: Chris Ramirez, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Reporter’s Notebook—There are so many people who would prefer to not think about prison inmates.  Life is much more pleasant if we can pretend that everyone who commits a major felony is living on a Martian colony, instead of inside a prison somewhere in our state.  Many of us would also like to think that once a criminal is sent to prison…that’s it…end of story.  Justice served.  But the reality is—97 percent of people who go into a New Mexico prison return to our neighborhoods.  Felons are part of our everyday life.  We shop with them, dine with them, sometimes even work with them.  There will never be a way to escape that reality.  That’s why the way inmates are treated inside our prison is so important.  It’s in the best interest of our society to do what we can to ensure that inmates leave prison a better person than before they entered.  

Over the last few years, I have had several conversations with Department of Corrections Cabinet Secretary Gregg Marcantel on this very issue.  I’ve been tough on him during interviews, holding him and his staff accountable for the humane treatment of inmates.  I’ve come to him with lawsuits and allegations of inmates left in solitary confinement for long periods of time.  I’ve also invited legal minds such as Albuquerque Attorney Matt Coyte to challenge Marcantel’s segregation policies and ethical treatment of inmates.  Our 4 On Your Side Investigative Team has been the most aggressive group of journalists ensuring that the Department of Corrections remains transparent and is affording inmates the rights to which they are entitled. 

With every story we’ve done regarding the Department of Corrections, Marcantel has never hid from accountability, never tried to evade our tough questions, nor given me bureaucratic answers to help polish a stinky situation.  I’ve always found Marcantel to give it to me straight with a mindset of looking for solutions. 

Which brings us to today’s story.  Months ago, Marcantel and his team let me in on a heavily guarded secret.  Marcantel had plans on entering maximum-security solitary confinement for 48 hours.  The secrecy was imperative due to security concerns.  If other inmates knew that the man at the highest level of prison administration was in a cell nearby, Marcantel’s life could be in jeopardy.  Marcantel wanted to experience segregation for himself—the dullness, the boredom, the prison food, the days, the nights, the guards, the smells, the sounds, the existence.  Marcantel later explained that he had studied segregation from an academic standpoint, but wanted to connect it with feeling and emotion.  This, he believes, will make him a better administrator and policy maker.  Through my countless interviews and conversations, I believe Marcantel fully understands how important it is that inmates are treated humanely for a chance at succeeding later in our society. 

Sometime in late spring, Marcantel was placed in the highest security cell at the State Penitentiary in Santa Fe.  The correctional officers were given strict orders to give him the same treatment they would any other inmate.  For our television purposes, Marcantel was allowed a small camera to video document his time in isolation.  After a full 48 hours, he was released.  His segregation ended, but the change of prison culture began.

Marcantel has already asked his wardens to identify inmates in segregation who no longer pose a threat to themselves or others and place them in general population areas. So far, 60-80 inmates have already been moved. 

During our last interview, Marcantel explained his vision for the NM Dept. of Corrections very clearly.  He wants a prison system where inmates are receiving appropriate care, learning skills, working toward degrees, accepting responsibility for their crimes, and truly changing their behaviors.  But he knows this dream for inmates incarcerated in his prison system begins with him—his decisions, his management.   We become a better state when felons contribute to our community, not take away from it.  How we treat those in incarceration could make a difference between a released inmate who helps or takes.

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