Given 40 years of radically increasing social and economic inequality in America, it’s not surprising that many people are in an angry mood. And since many of those who have seen their social standing slip and their bank accounts shrink even as they have led responsible and law-abiding lives, it’s not surprising that they support vengeful attitudes towards convicted law-breakers.
This zeal for punishing the guilty seems not to be dampened by the fact that many of the political leaders who call themselves toughest on crime, have been among the weakest in seeking to increase opportunities for people to break out of the cycle of inequality.
For law-breakers in prison, a frequently-used punishment is solitary confinement. According to the only statistics the NM Department of Corrections has released, in January of last year, 465 prisoners, 6.5% of inmates in state prison were in segregation.
Despite an ongoing debate over legislation to prevent more than 48 hour placements in solitary for women, children and the mentally ill, State Legislators have been denied more up to date information.
As one of the sponsors of a reform bill, Albuquerque Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, told today’s guest, investigative reporter Jeff Sessions, “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.”
What many studies have shown is that isolation in solitary confinement is more than just punishing. It is damaging, causing mental illness, especially among children, and exacerbating the psychological problems of those who are already mentally ill. Often the damage done by solitary confinement lasts for years, for long after a prisoner has finished his or her sentence and been released to life in society.
Which prisoners are the likeliest to become free civilians? The youngest, of course. And the State’s Children Youth and Families Department says it has a policy against the use of solitary in its youth lock-ups. But when Jeff asked about kids in the state’s juvenile county jails where children are sent after sentencing, the department spokesman had no answer.
Jeff Proctor is an investigative reporter with long experience covering the criminal justice system in New Mexico. His reporting is currently seen in New Mexico in Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter, and has recently been featured on the radio series Reveal and in the New York Times. He has also covered the criminal justice system for Albuquerque television station KRQE and the Albuquerque Journal.