A House committee voted down legislation aimed at limiting isolated confinement in jails on Friday afternoon.
The legislation failed to pass on a 6 to 5 vote, on party-lines with Republicans opposing the legislation.
The bill’s sponsor Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and his two expert witnesses told committee members that prisoner isolation does more harm than good. One of his witnesses was civil rights lawyer Matthew Coyte.
Coyte has won numerous cases against correctional facilities across the state where inmates were exposed to inhumane conditions.
Coyte told the committee the proposal would not eliminate the use of confinement, but would impose time limits. He also praised a provision that would track inmates’ time in isolated confinement, something he called a “transparency clause.”
According to the bill, inmates could not be in in isolated confinement for more than 15 days in a row or a total of 60 days in a year. Currently, according to a document from the state Department of Corrections, isolation periods lasting longer than 30 days require approval from a warden.
Most of the audience members in opposition to the bill were representatives from municipal jails around New Mexico, including the head of corrections. Secretary of Corrections Designate Gregg Marcantel told the committee he was open to reforms but that legislation was not the right way to change the system.
“To just place [the legislation] from Santa Fe like we know everything, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and not make this organic is not the solution,” Marcantel told New Mexico Political Report after the hearing.
He added that funding plays a huge factor in corrections reform, a point he made to the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the session. Unlike other state services, Marcantel argued, there is no extra revenue for correctional facilities.
“There’s not people throwing money at jails,” he said.
Steven Robert Allen, the Director of Public Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said he is not opposed to Marcantel approach, but that it is not enough. Allen said the secretary’s bottom-up approach may be working, but it is not permanent enough.
“He’s not going to be corrections secretary forever, unfortunately,” Allen said.
Some Democratic members of the committee argued that the state might save money by avoiding civil rights lawsuits.
Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, praised correctional officers for their work, but added that he wants to see more reform soon.
Martinez asked the committee, “If not today, when?”
The panel initially voted on a motion to pass the bill on to the House Appropriations Committee. After a failed vote, Minority floor Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, made a motion to pass the bill without a recommendation. Both motions were met with a party line vote, to not pass the bill.