Advocates around the country have been working to limit the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons. The New Mexico Legislature passed a bill this year that would prohibit putting people who are under 18 or pregnant or who have a serious mental illness into solitary. But last week, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it.
Lawyer Matthew Coyte has spent years suing on behalf of local inmates who endured inhumane solitary conditions that damaged their physical and mental health. KUNM spoke with him about the governor's veto.
COYTE: It’s disappointing. We have had a lot of work on this issue over years. We reached bipartisan support. There were many Republicans as well as Democrats behind the bill at the end of the day. We had interest groups, such as the unions who represent the prison guards, who endorsed the bill.
And then the veto message that came out seemed to have no understanding of all the work that had been done. It really was a veto based on what appeared to be on ignorance.
KUNM: Gov. Susana Martinez wrote in her veto message that the measure oversimplifies and “misconstrues” solitary confinement and would eliminate flexibility. She called it a threat to safety. What’s your take on that issue?
COYTE: I don’t think she read the bill, quite frankly. I don’t think she read it. Because it’s nonsense. I mean, for example, “a threat to safety,” the foremost psychiatrist in charge of CYFD testified that this is a public safety measure that would help public safety. Because children in solitary come out worse. They come out more violent. They come out a public safety threat. So you really want to avoid putting children in solitary confinement if at all possible, and if you do, only for very short periods of time—cool-off periods.
And the bill had flexibility in many respects. It wasn’t a bill that abolished solitary confinement. It abolished it for the particularly vulnerable groups: women who are pregnant, children and the seriously mentally ill. And it’s very difficult for anyone to make a logical argument why any of these vulnerable groups should be in solitary.
KUNM: When I’ve talked to jail administrators and prison guards—not necessarily about this bill but about the use of segregation or solitary confinement—they always say that there has to be a way to separate inmates who are dangerous and violent to other inmates and to staff. And there has to be a place to send them. What do you think about that idea?
COYTE: Well, it’s a practice that is overused, and there may be moments that solitary is useful. It’s a very rare case and for a short period of time. But this bill didn’t try to do that. It didn’t try to stop the government using solitary confinement on normal people. It tried for children.
So, what you do is best practices. And national practice is tending to move away from solitary, especially in the world of children. And, once again, New Mexico is in a race to the bottom of national standards. We’re headed back, after the veto of this bill, in the wrong direction—downhill.
KUNM: You’ve brought a lot of these solitary confinement cases to court over the last few years. What’s at stake for people who find themselves behind bars?
COYTE: It’s torturous. The people that I sue on behalf of have been in solitary for months and months at a time. They’re often covered in feces. They’re defecating into holes in the floor of their cells. Often they’re naked. It’s appalling. It’s a human rights issue that we don’t, as the public, generally know about.
Well, we do now, because it’s cost us nearly $30 million in the last five years in lawsuits.
KUNM: Like you mentioned, counties around New Mexico have had to pay millions of dollars in settlements in these cases after the fact. Do you think better laws around solitary confinement could save money in the long run?
COYTE: Absolutely. This would put people like me out of business. If this law went into effect, then I wouldn’t be suing every county—you should see the number of counties I’ve sued so far.
And it will cost us more and more as the years go by. And the governor has just increased that length of time where we’re going to be as taxpayers paying. Remember I’m a taxpayer, too. I see the waste. It’s not just a human rights issue. It’s a fiscal issue.
KUNM: What keeps you fighting these cases?
COYTE: They’re very depressing, let me tell you. It’s a horrible set of facts to be involved in on a day-to-day basis. But, you know, it’s the right thing to do. You have to stand up and fight against something that’s so obviously wrong.
KUNM tried to get more information about why Gov. Martinez vetoed this measure when the cases are costing New Mexico counties millions, but the governor’s spokespeople referred us back to the veto message.