Legislature passes House bill to restrict solitary confinement

Modest restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons easily passed the state Senate Friday. The House concurred with Senate changes later in the day. House Bill 175 would forbid “restricted housing” — defined as 22 or more consecutive hours in a cell “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction” — for pregnant women in the state’s county jails and prisons and for children in juvenile lock-ups. The measure also would limit how corrections officers and administrators in the state’s 28 county jails and 11 prisons can use the controversial practice on people living with or exhibiting signs of mental illness. Early versions of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, placed a 48-hour cap on solitary for inmates with mental health issues.

Executive Director of Parole Board resigns, takes new state job

The executive director of the New Mexico Parole Board has moved to another state job, as fresh controversy surrounds the board’s handling of parole hearings for the state’s “30-year lifer” inmates and lawmakers consider a bill that would check the board’s power.  Sherry Stephens’ last day as executive director was Friday, Parole Board Operations Manager Megan Moreno told New Mexico In Depth and SFR. Stephens gave two weeks’ notice on Feb. 27 and is now working at the state department of Aging and Long Term Services.  Moreno said Stephens was not fired from her position at the state agency, which oversees the conditions of release for thousands of parolees around the state each year and decides whether people charged with certain capital crimes go free.

NM Auditor: Conflict of interest found in Corrections Dept. Audit

A former deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Corrections Department was put in charge of the financial relationship between the department and a television production company for which she had worked only months before, according to a new report from the state Auditor’s Office. It appears that Alex Sanchez waived at least $20,000 in fees owed by Lucky 8 TV, LLC, to the Corrections Department in June 2016 after having left  the company’s employ just three months earlier, the report shows. The state Auditor’s evidence for that claim is an email Sanchez sent employees of the company in which she noted the waived fees for the filming of Lucky 8’s prison reality series, “Behind Bars: Rookie Year.”

The Corrections Department could not provide any evidence or documentation that anyone other than Sanchez determined the amounts to be billed to the production company. Additionally, Lucky 8 was allowed to begin filming a third season of its show last year even though the company still owed the state $42,000 from the previous two seasons, the audit found. The arrangement amounted to a conflict of interest in which “not all of the decisions appear to be in the best interest of the state,” the auditors said.

Throwing Away the Key: New Mexico’s ‘30-year lifers’ 
denied a fair shot at parole

Since 1985, O.C. Fero has lined his shelf with achievements. The former high school principal was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch. He has tutored young men on their way to GEDs and earned three master’s degrees himself, all in religious studies. And in 1992, Fero, who is now 75, married Carole Royal, with whom he shares an abiding love of scripture, reading and far-ranging spiritual thought. Attending the small ceremony in Los Lunas were the couple’s adult children from previous marriages.

Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

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.”

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 year in solitary: ‘I didn’t want to lose it’

FARMINGTON—Joshua Saiz paces outside his mobile home, anxiously puffing on a cigarette and, alternately, flashing a grin at his young daughter. The gravel crunches under his shoes as he takes six short steps up, makes a tight turn, then six steps back. Always six steps up, six steps back. The 40-year-old former oil field laborer can’t bring to mind why he’s so consistent. But his wife, Nakrista Saiz, has the answer: “I’ve asked him, too.

Uneasy Sanctuary: Santa Fe policies strong but don’t always stop calls to ICE

This story first appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter, a partner of New Mexico In DepthThe Santa Fe Police Department generally prefers to make its own law enforcement decisions. On paper, that means leaving federal immigration authorities in the dark on cases involving people who may be in the country illegally, even as President Donald Trump threatens cities’ funding if they don’t cooperate in fulfilling his campaign promise to cleanse the nation of “criminal illegal aliens.”

But during the past two-plus years, SFPD has tipped off Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at least three times about suspected undocumented immigrants. Details about the cases highlight difficulties in balancing public safety against remaining true to “sanctuary” policies that, in Santa Fe, were born of cooperation and core values but are now bound to experience some turbulence. For Ronald Ayala-Santos, according to police, a heads-up for the feds took some doing on his part. Since mid-2015, the 20-year-old has admitted to making a false report about “heavily armed men” swarming a Santa Fe neighborhood and phoning in bogus bomb threats that led to the chaotic clearing of the Violet Crown Cinema and the Plaza, police say.

‘Constitutional crisis’ could dominate criminal justice debate

Republicans and Democrats will debate what criminal justice reform means during the 60-day legislative session. But a much more serious problem needs their attention, New Mexico Chief Justice Charles Daniels told the Legislature on Thursday.
“I wish I could tell you that New Mexico is providing the functioning justice system promised in the constitution that created the ground rules of our government, but I can’t,” Daniels said.
A justice system requires enough money to make it function.