A group of more than two dozen New Mexico prison inmates, many with compromised immune systems, are considering legal claims against the state Corrections Department for its “gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the dangers of COVID-19,” according to documents obtained by SFR and New Mexico In Depth. As the rest of New Mexico remains under an order against gatherings of over 50 people and pleas from officials to practice social distancing, the state’s prison system has not tested any of the thousands of inmates locked up or the corrections officers guarding them. And there do not appear to be contingency plans in place should an outbreak occur. Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in civil rights, visited clients at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on March 9, he wrote in a notice sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and corrections officials four days later. An officer told him the minimum-security lockup “was taking no precautions against coronavirus.”
“It was indicated that it was not a serious threat and there was nothing to worry about,” Collins wrote in the notice.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the hunt for a new corrections secretary after Julie Jones — the former Florida prison system leader the governor had tapped for the position at the end of January — announced Tuesday she’s no longer able to take the job. “It’s with a heavy heart that I decline my appointment as the Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Corrections,” Jones wrote in a letter she submitted to the Governor’s Office on Tuesday. “As you know,” the letter continued, “I had scheduled time off prior to starting my tenure as Secretary. Since my return, there have been several unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico. You have a bold vision for your state and I truly regret not being a part of your team.”
The New Mexico Department of Corrections does not have a current policy that would allow inmates to breastfeed their children, despite a judge’s order last year to put one in place. While Corrections implemented a lactation policy, it only covers access to electric breastfeeding pumps, a department spokesman told NM Political Report. Despite the order, the spokesman said in-person breastfeeding only applied to one woman. Last June, inmate Monique Hidalgo sued the Corrections Department to be able to use an electric breast pump and breastfeed her then-newborn daughter, Isabella, in-person. The injunctive order handed down last August by state District Court Judge David K. Thomson ordered the department to allow inmates to breastfeed their children.
House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.
“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”
This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission
Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.
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.