On Solitary Confinement

Pamela Field for the Sun News January 27, 2019

Recently I met someone who was late for an appointment, as she worked in a jail which had been on lock-down because an inmate hanged himself. “Another person in solitary confinement,” she said.

I was on contract as a psychiatric nurse at the facility she works at and I saw changes in safety after severe staff cuts. Within months there were several successful hangings and one inmate homicide-the first in 40 years. There is no doubt in my mind that solitary confinement often is used because of lack of staff. Under the guise of providing safety. Protective custody for sexual offenders, or “so called snitches” and even law enforcement officials who have broken the law will force the use of some type of solitary confinement. Correctional officials will often tout that it is necessary for safety reasons, but at what cost?

It was too high for Isaiah Trinity, Las Cruces, who had been in solitary confinement for seven months when he hanged himself at the Penitentiary of New Mexico last July, according to a Las Cruces story dated 10-02-18. The article did not say whether he had been screened for mental health problems, but the stress placed on someone who endures the restrictions of being on “lock-down” for extended periods of time could cause anyone to break emotionally. According to Rick Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, the International human rights standards from the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary confinement for over 15 days is torture.

Raemisch wrote one of the most insightful and thoughtful op-eds I have read on this subject, published by the Sun-News on 12-10-18. He said that Colorado correctional facilities use solitary confinement for serious disciplinary violations only, and for 15 days at a time. He said this policy change was made to increase public safety. He went on to describe how damaging the effects are of housing people in a cell for 22 or more hours a day in a space similar to a parking space. He emphasized that people will leave and go back to their communities in much worse shape than they were when they arrived.

Colorado initially banned solitary confinement for people with mental health issues and developed deescalation areas where incarcerated people could have a “time-out.” Raemisch said prisoners are now using the gym, day halls and re-entry units as the cultural change is shifting away from what he calls “counter-productive” punishments.

I have said more than once that I wish the general public could see what is supposed to be “correctional” in many jails and prisons. Raemisch makes the case of how beneficial it is for staff and those who are incarcerated to develop a humane approach. There are discussions of a bill being proposed by State Rep. “Moe” Maestas and State Sen. Mary Kay Papen to address how solitary confinement is used in New Mexico prisons and jails this legislative session. Papen was quoted as saying “I just want to make sure we are stabilizing people and not doing damage.” A discussion with Raemisch could clarify that.

Pamela Field is a psychiatric nurse.

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