How do we fix our prisons?


New Mexico’s “three strikes” law may be due for an update, because, says Governor Susana Martinez, the current law does not take enough violent criminals off the street.

I’m all for protecting us from violent criminals. But I find our policies and attitudes toward prison – New Mexico’s and the nation’s – confusing and contradictory.

What is prison for? Is it to punish? Is it, as the name Corrections suggests, to reform? Is it just to get dangerous people off the streets?

In recent years, U.S. states have outlawed the death penalty but increased the use of solitary confinement and enacted laws – like “three strikes” — that increase sentences. “Tough on crime” is still a fashionable attitude for some politicians, and it’s well known the U.S. maintains the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The current population of New Mexico’s prisons is around 7,200, says the Corrections Department website. About 90 percent are male. Most, according to department public affairs officer Alex Tomlin, do not have a high school diploma or GED. Most, Tomlin said, are incarcerated for a second or subsequent offense, and most of those offenses were violent.

The recidivism rate – the percentage of inmates who commit another crime and return to prison – is a shocking 47 percent within 36 months, says the department’s annual report.

State prisons are only half the story. Some of the publicized abuses of solitary confinement have occurred in county jails. Counties don’t report the use of solitary to any central authority. We can wonder whether they use solitary because they lack other resources to prevent violence between inmates.

In May 2014, New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel famously endured solitary confinement for 48 hours so he could experience firsthand what it’s like for inmates. That resulted in major reforms, such as limiting solitary (or segregation, as the department calls it) to a maximum of 30 days per punishable incident, setting up programs to reward good behavior, and establishing a transition program to re-socialize inmates so they don’t go directly from segregation to release.

The system has gone from 10.1 percent of its inmates in segregation to 6.6 percent. That’s progress but it still leaves a few hundred in segregation at any time.

The department did not support legislation this year – House Bill 376, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D.-Albuquerque) – that would have placed further restrictions on segregation. Neither did the Association of Counties. The bill’s Fiscal Impact Report said counties feared that without the use of solitary confinement, there would be an increase in inmate altercations and costly lawsuits by injured inmates.

Since 96 percent of inmates will be back in the neighborhood some day, our corrections system should be doing whatever it can to teach them how to behave better – and we should be glad to support those programs with public dollars. Besides education, my favorite is the dog program that has inmates training rescue dogs for adoption.

The 2015 legislative session had at least six bills to increase prison terms for various offenses (none passed). Though I agree that incarceration is a deterrent, I’m not sure a longer term makes the deterrent more effective. I think the threat of a longer sentence is meaningless to someone about to commit a crime.

And longer sentences cost taxpayer money — currently between $35,000 and $40,000 a year per inmate.

The legacy of the 1980 prison riot is still with us. Ugly as it is, New Mexico must pay attention to our corrections system, sympathize with its difficulties while demanding accountability and ask that it do everything within reason to release offenders as better human beings than they went in.

We have to keep asking ourselves and our officials what’s right, what we want the system to do for us, and what is really happening inside those walls.

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