Inmates sue over mental health services in isolation

Men complain of inhumane conditions at state prison

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Five maximum security inmates at a state prison south of Santa Fe have filed a lawsuit accusing prison officials of warehousing people with severe mental illnesses in inhumane conditions and providing no mental health services aside from medication.

In a handwritten six-page complaint filed Tuesday in the state District Court in Santa Fe, the men claim that each has a history of not being able to function in society or in the general prison population, and that their treatment within the walls of the north complex of the Penitentiary of New Mexico, where they spend most of their time in isolation, is making their conditions worse, not better.

The inmates say they have been placed in a strict Predatory Behavior Management Program, which aims to reduce violence within prisons by isolating those accused of attacking guards or other inmates. The program offers no therapy, the inmates complain.

They are subjected to "violent officers, psychotic inmates, lack of promised meaningful ... programs and education, exposure to stench and filth, constantly being moved and having to clean up feces and filth after other inmates, exposure to insects and leaky roofs, malfunctioning plumbing and lack of cleaning supplies," according to the complaint.

The inmates -- who say they spend up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement -- quote U.S. Supreme Court findings from more than a century ago on the "devastating effects of prolonged isolation even on 'normal' prisoners." In its analysis of solitary confinement in 1890, the high court found that even after short periods of confinement, prisoners fell into "a semi-fatuous condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse them," and "others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community."

While the Supreme Court so far has declined to rule on whether long-term solitary confinement is unconstitutional, justices in recent years have revisited the court's 1890 findings. In 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the analysis in criticizing the widespread use of isolation, which he said affects some 25,000 U.S. inmates. Justice Stephen Breyer also referred to the 127-year-old findings in March 2017.

News analyses and court cases nationwide -- including in New Mexico -- have cited increasing concerns about the use of solitary confinement in both prisons and jails to control inmates with mental illness.

State Corrections Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh said in an email that prisons in New Mexico provide drug abuse programs; intensive outpatient therapy; DWI, anger management and drug suppression programs; and recidivism reduction services to inmates, including those in the Predatory Behavior Management Program at the center of the five inmates' complaint.

Prisoners can put in requests to see behavioral health professionals "at any time," Mahesh said.

The department's policy outlining the Predatory Behavior Management Program says inmates placed in the program receive enhanced supervision and additional services, and that "each offender receives a daily visit from a qualified health care professional."

Despite these written assurances, inmates say, the promised mental health services are "never offered."

In fact, they claim in their complaint, the facility where they are housed "has two mental health employees that may check on residents once every couple of months."

The mental health staff is untrained, the lawsuit says. "It boils down to warehousing people with severe mental illness."

Without real treatment, the inmates claim, it will be impossible for them "to learn how to function in a prison general population or in society," and they "are at extreme risk of committing depraved crimes of psychotic and psycho-sexual nature."

"Petitioners will be a threat to themselves and to others and have no way to receive help," they say.

The inmates request damages of $50,000 each and ask the court to mandate that the Corrections Department provide time out of their cells, individual therapy, group therapy, anger management treatment, and drug and alcohol treatment -- services that spokesman Mahesh said already are provided in the prison.

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexica­n.com. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.

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