Solitary confinement suits cost NM counties millions
Correctional officials have said they put the inmates in solitary confinement to protect them from themselves and others
By Mary Hudetz
Associated Press/CJ Project
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For six months, George Abila languished under the glaring lights of a New Mexico jail cell, locked in solitary confinement without a bed or toilet in a space so small he could cross it in four paces.
Abila, a 56-year-old with severe depression, was moved to the desolate unit after a series of suicide attempts at the Eddy County Detention Center, where he awaited trial on a commercial burglary charge.
A hole in the floor served as his toilet. To defecate, Abila had to push his feces into the drain and through its grate. The fluorescent lights in the padded cell stayed on day and night. He developed sores that required medical attention after so many months spent sleeping on the floor.
"If you're put in a padded cell, it's because you want to take your life," Abila said. "But when they put you in there, that's all you think about is taking your life. ... It's straight torture."
The conditions of Abila's confinement, vividly recounted in a federal civil rights lawsuit, resulted in a $1.9 million judgment at the end of January against Eddy County, a 4,000-square-mile swath of the Chihuahuan Desert along the Texas border.
The case, filed in 2014 after Abila's release, marked at least the fifth in as many years in New Mexico to result in a major payout for a former jail inmate held in solitary, a practice that has come under broad scrutiny nationwide amid growing evidence that the mentally ill are routinely housed in segregation.
In Abila's case, a federal judge ruled that the "deplorable" jail conditions violated Abila's civil rights, dismissing Eddy County's argument that the restrictive quarters were necessary to help prevent him from another suicide attempt.
The case brought to more than $20 million the amount of judgments against New Mexico counties in such civil rights suits, settlements that threaten to strain resources in an already cash-strapped state.
Five additional jail solitary confinement cases, all of them pending in federal court, have been filed against New Mexico counties in the last 18 months alone.
One of the plaintiffs is Roxanne Estrada, who has schizophrenia and also had to use a drain in the floor for a toilet while locked in what local authorities in the state often call a "special management" unit in Otero County, her lawsuit said.
Estrada's mental health deteriorated to the point where she often wriggled out of her "suicide smock" and crouched naked in her cell. It had a large window that allowed anyone in a nearby booking area to see her, legal filings said.
"What we're doing is taking people with the most serious illness, and they're sitting in jail for six months, usually in isolation — and that makes this a human rights abuse," said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, who has authored a book of his research on solitary confinement set for release later this year.
"Across the board, that means their mental health gets worse," Kupers said. "Those with mental illness or those prone to suicide should not be in jail."
Critics of solitary confinement argue that the price, in both human and financial terms, is unsupportable.
"It makes no sense to the taxpayer to be doing this," said New Mexico defense attorney Matthew Coyte, who has filed numerous cases on behalf of former inmates, including Abila and Estrada. "But let's not lose sight of the fact that what we are doing to people is unambiguously horrific."
The debate about how to handle inmates with mental illness has grown exponentially in recent years amid reports nationwide finding that a growing number of people cycling through the justice system suffer from some form of mental health issue. Correctional officials — ill-equipped to handle the influx — have said they put the inmates in solitary confinement to protect them from themselves and others.
Justice Department figures showed that about a quarter of those in jails and prisons with a mental health disorder had reported being held in solitary confinement in a 2011-2012 survey, which provides the most recent federal data.
Among prisons, New Mexico placed a higher rate of inmates in solitary confinement for more than 15 days at a time than all other states, except Nebraska and Utah, according to results of a fall 2015 survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School, which tracks the issue.
New Mexico correctional officials said the use of solitary confinement in the state's prisons has since continued to drop.
But the report released in November did not provide figures for the nation's 3,000 jails, which operate under a patchwork of policies and guidelines that often hinders efforts to track data showing who is in segregation nationwide or within individual states.
At least five other states have passed laws in recent years that limit the use of segregation. In New Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union has supported legislation each year that would narrow its use. This year's proposal — currently under debate — would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and inmates with mental illness.
Correction officials fear such a measure would increase risks for jail staff and inmates alike.
"We do see the need for some kind of regulation," said Dan Solis, the president of the union at the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility. "But taking away a resource like that would stop the regular running of the facility and actually jeopardize the mentally ill inmates."
At jails, inmates with mental health issues often arrive unmedicated and can pose a danger to themselves or others. Jails have to obtain clearance from a district court judge before medicating inmates without their consent, Solis said.
Jails, especially in rural areas, can lack treatment programs and specialized mental health wings, leaving few options for places to hold suicidal inmates who will use clothing, metal pieces from beds — the case with Abila — or any other available material to try to kill themselves, according to county advocates.
On any given day, 2,500 inmates inside New Mexico's jails are coping with mental health issues. But there are fewer than 500 beds in psychiatric centers across the state, said Grace Philips, the general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties.
Estrada, in Otero County, went four months before a mental health care worker arrived to evaluate her, while Abila didn't see a psychiatrist between his suicide attempts, their lawsuits said.
Abila, five years after the ordeal, still has nightmares about the padded cell. He said a sense of panic overwhelms him if he spends long periods in enclosed areas, even in his own bedroom in his home in Roswell.
Often, jail staff said, he would peer through a window in the door of his cell during his stint at the Eddy County jail but refused to make eye contact with anyone who approached. Now, his eyes still dart away in conversation.
"The important thing is that people see what's going on," Abila said. "You got people who are being fined and going to jail for mistreating a dog. You know, how much worse is it to mistreat a person like that?"