Inmate violence in NM prisons hits 10-year high
The Corrections Department says increased violence is due to efforts to reduce use of solitary confinement
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, NM — Violence among inmates causing serious injuries in New Mexico’s prisons has risen to the highest rate in a decade, state data show.
A recent legislative performance report for the state Corrections Department raises concerns about the safety conditions inside prisons, saying staffing shortages and crowding leave “less space or opportunity for evidence-based programming,” such as drug treatment and education. This, combined with an increase in gang-affiliated inmates and a prevalence of illegal drugs, is leading to “high rates of violence and recidivism,” according to the report by the Legislative Finance Committee.
There were 32 inmate-on-inmate assaults in fiscal year 2018, the report says, well above the year’s target of 10 and more than double the 15 that occurred in 2017.
Corrections Secretary David Jablonski declined to be interviewed for this story.
Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh said in an email the assaults have been spread throughout the state’s 11 prisons.
The most serious incident in the past year occurred in January at the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe, where two inmates attacked another prisoner in a recreation area, Mahesh said. The assailants repeatedly punched and kicked the victim as he lay on the ground, resulting in injuries that required hospitalization.
The Corrections Department says the increased violence among inmates is primarily because of its efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement over the past several years, following a critical report that found New Mexico housed prisoners in isolation at about twice the rate of segregation in federal prisons.
Mahesh said that in the past, the agency was able to better control the number of assaults through the use of “restrictive housing.”
“We made an effort to reduce [solitary confinement],” he said, “and this is the unintended consequence, although not unexpected.”
A Santa Fe attorney with a long history of monitoring state prisons believes the agency has it wrong. Mark Donatelli said inmates held too long in isolation develop violent behavior patterns that lead to trouble when they return to the general population — or to the community.
Donatelli, appointed to represent prisoners as part of a federal decree after the deadly 1980 prison riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, said the spike in inmate violence is a sign that problems are “coming home to roost” for state prisons after many years of overusing segregated housing as punishment.
New Mexico’s prison system has its share of challenges. According to Mahesh, it has a higher rate of violent offenders, gang members and opioid users than the nation as a whole, which has led to a “historically violent inmate population.”
A state report last year also showed the prison population in New Mexico was steadily rising and on track to exceed capacity, even as inmate numbers nationwide were on the decline.
Still, Mahesh insisted the main reason for the recent upswing in violence is the effort to reduce the use of solitary.
“This is a delicate balance between assuring safety of inmates and staff and also trying to reduce segregation,” he wrote in the email.
Earlier this year, Jerry Roark, the Corrections Department’s director of adult prisons, told state lawmakers the prison system had reduced its use of solitary confinement to 4 percent this year from about 12 percent in 2012. But last month, Mahesh said the rate was up to about 7 percent. That’s about the same rate the department reported in 2015.
Asked to explain how the increase in assaults in 2018 correlated with reductions in the use of segregation, when the rate hasn’t shifted considerably in recent years, Mahesh reiterated that reducing the use of restricted housing is “a primary reason” for the spike.
“When you are trying to rehabilitate violent and repeat offenders and gang members by housing them with other inmates, sometimes they will re-offend,” he wrote.
One way the Corrections Department is working to reduce inmate violence, Mahesh said, is by installing body scanners to screen for drugs.
Tackling the drug problem will help cut down the number of assaults, he said, because drugs smuggled into prisons by family members and friends “creates turf wars and drug debts that result in threats and assaults.”
The department also continues to work with local and federal law enforcement agencies to eliminate gangs in the system, Mahesh said.
Donatelli said the department has it backward.
“How do I make this clear?” he said. “The reckless use of solitary confinement will produce violent behavior by the people who endure it.”
New Mexico residents should be concerned about escalating violence in the state’s prisons because the majority of the inmates will one day be living among them, Donatelli said.
“Over 90 percent of prisoners are released into the community,” he said. “Over 300 prisoners per month are released to our state. When prisoners live in an environment that requires hyperalertness and an expectation of dealing with violence, they are going to commit violent acts when they are released to our communities.
“Unless we find ways to improve the quality of life for prisoners and provide hope for when they are ultimately released,” he said, “we can expect to see assaults on staff and assaults on other prisoners.”