ACLU: NM has flawed data about solitary confinement

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Cover of ACLU-NM report about discrepancy in NM solitary confinement statistics.

The American Civil Liberties Union New Mexico appears to have uncovered a significant statistical deficiency in New Mexico criminal justice data.

In September 2018, the state Corrections Department reported 4 percent of inmates in its prisons were being held in solitary confinement — defined as spending 22 hours or more a day alone for 15 or more consecutive days. A research team working with the ACLU found that the rate was actually 9 percent.

Steve Allen, policy director for the ACLU of New Mexico, chalks the disparity up to a lack of uniform policies, practices and data collection.

“Definitions of solitary confinement have constantly shifted, and you see this euphemistic terminology used,” he told NMID. “Corrections administrators bristle at the use of ‘solitary confinement,’ preferring ‘restricted housing,’ ‘special housing unit,’ ‘administrative segregation,’ and others. So people are reclassified all the time, and there’s no attempt to define this problem. And call it what you want, but solitary can be very damaging.”

The ambiguity caused by the hodgepodge of definitions and practices made tracking cases of solitary confinement difficult, posing a threat “to information transparency and institutional accountability to one of the most vulnerable populations in New Mexico,” according to the ACLU’s 124-page report.

The report did not examine the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s 33 county jails, where some of the most egregious abuses have been revealed through lawsuits in recent years.

“We have glimpses into (the use of solitary) in county jails, but we don’t have a clear picture,” Allen says. “It’s very difficult because they are all so different from each other — separately administered and of all different sizes. Some of the smaller ones are just a handful of beds.

A bill that has passed the state House of Representatives, HB364, would restrict the use of solitary and require data collection and reporting on the practice — including the number of inmates in solitary and their ethnicity — in all New Mexico jails and prisons. It is similar to a measure that passed both chambers in 2017 but was vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez.

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