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Lawmakers sponsor bill addressing solitary confinement

Kai Porter and Chris Ramirez
January 24, 2017 08:52 AM

Right now, there is no law regulating who can be placed in solitary confinement in New Mexico’s prisons and jails. That would change if legislators pass a bill being proposed.

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House Bill 175 , The Isolated Confinement Act, is only meant to keep certain people who could be harmed as a result out of solitary confinement, according to the lawmaker backing the bill. If it passes, correctional facilities in the state would not be allowed to place the following inmates in solitary confinement:

  • Anyone under the age of 18
  • Pregnant women
  • Inmates suffering from a serious mental illness

The bill would apply to government-run and private correctional facilities. Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsored the legislation.

“I think that children should not be in solitary confinement. I think there’s consensus on that,” said Maestas, who works as a lawyer. “Pregnant women: We know that pregnancy is volatile and we need to make sure those women stay healthy. With regards to the mentally ill, if you don’t understand the realities around you to be put in isolation it’s very dangerous. It’s a long term detriment to the person and the CO’s who care for that person in the jail.”

The bill would also require every correctional facility in the state to report the name, age and ethnicity of every inmate who is placed in solitary confinement, the reason, and for how long.

Some argue that if someone is in jail, they deserve what they get. But the Constitution doesn't see it that way and neither do the courts. People in jail have rights, and if jail staff members continue to leave a mentally ill person, a child, or a pregnant woman alone in a cell for months on end, everyone will pay a big price for it later.  

George Abila will be the first to admit he was not a role model citizen. He committed a slew of crimes to feed that drug habit. He cycled in and out of jails and it weighed heavy on him, especially during his last stint at the Eddy County jail in Carlsbad.

“I don't know how I got there to the point where … drugs had a lot to do with it,” Abila said. “It went a long ways.”

Court records indicate he tried committing suicide twice, once by swallowing a razor blade and another time by cutting himself. Instead of giving Abila the psychiatric treatment he needed, the jail staff threw him in this padded cell for seven months.

“If I wanted to die to begin with, I really wanted to die after that,” Abila said. “I didn't want to live like that day after day. Same thing, four walls.”

He had no bed or toilet. He was naked. He used a small hole in the ground to urinate and push his fecal matter down. For the way the jail treated him, the court ordered Eddy County to pay Abila $1.6 million.

“There are more people in solitary with egregious conditions who need advocacy,” said Matt Coyte, who represented Abila. “So we'll keep suing and we'll keep making the state pay until they behave like human beings. 

Coyte has sued a handful of jails around New Mexico. In every lawsuit, the former inmates who have been put into solitary confinement walk away with millions in taxpayer dollars. And the people who have been inhumanely treated only get worse.

“I definitely have hope, but I don't see it happening,” Abila said. “I would like for it to happen.”

Credits

Kai Porter and Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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