Every citizen is entitled to the use of the court system for the protection of his or her rights. This includes and generally necessitates contacts with attorneys. Prisoners have the same First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments rights to access to the courts and attorneys. In the case of prisoners with serious medical conditions, access to an attorney can be critical to the health and safety of the prisoner.
Right to Attorney Contact
This is probably the most important remaining right that a prisoner has. Prisoners are stripped of virtually every right and privilege possessed by the general population. Prisoners are locked away, hidden from society and too easily forgotten. Prisoners are easy prey. There are very few that will stand up for them or even give them a second thought. In fact, there are very few attorneys that will stand up for them for a host of reasons primarily due to the obstacles the State and Federal governments place in the way of effective legal representation of prisoners.
However, there are some attorneys that do, and prisoners have the right to contact those attorneys for legal assistance. This specifically means the right to seek out the legal services of an attorney. There are numerous cases from State-level courts to federal appellate courts to the U.S. Supreme Court that view this right as fundamental and beyond dispute.
NMCD Interference with Prisoner Access to Legal Counsel
We at Collins & Collins, P.C. have been hearing with increasing frequency that NMCD (New Mexico Corrections Department) in its vast legal wisdom has begun denying prisoners the right to seek out legal counsel. More specifically, we have heard that NMCD has been specifically denying the right to seek legal counsel from Collins & Collins, P.C. Although we appreciate the compliment from NMCD and take it as a point of pride that they don’t want prisoners talking to us, they are in plain violation of the Constitution.
It’s a rather interesting story how this pattern has emerged. Without boring the reader with the entire history of the obstruction of discovery (collection of evidence) by NMCD and its contractors, the pertinent details are rather short.
Solitary Confinement Reform
After years of falling short, solitary confinement was finally, although only partially, reformed at the New Mexico legislature earlier this year. There are countless reasons to reform solitary which is considered torture in all developed countries other than the U.S. and has been greatly restricted in most states with NMCD still grasping to retain unbridled authority to use solitary confinement as it chooses.
The New Mexico legislature did reign NMCD in slightly but only slightly. And even these modest reforms are apparently being ignored by NMCD. Moreover, it can reasonably be argued that NMCD has as is its custom misled the public and the legislature on its continuing use of solitary confinement.
NMCD issued its first Restrictive Housing Quarterly Report on October 18, 2019. The NMCD report lists the names of all inmates in “restrictive housing”, a euphemism NMCD likes to use for solitary perhaps due in part to their tendency to rename or rebrand solitary confinement so it can continue its use. In any event, the attorneys and staff at Collins & Collins, P.C. went through the Report itself and found a number of inmates known by Collins & Collins, P.C. to be in solitary who are not on the list.
The best example is the aptly named “X-Pod” at the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM) in Santa Fe. X-Pod is by any definition solitary confinement. The inmates are held in their cells without contact with anyone for a minimum of 22 hours per day. As often as not, it seems based upon reporting they are regularly held in isolation for more than 22 hours a day with regular periods of extended isolation for days and weeks at a time.
X-Pod may represent the most cynical, callous and inhumane trivialization of solitary confinement by NMCD. NMCD calls X-Poda “general population” pod despite the conditions of confinement, the complete lack of rehabilitation programming and the forfeiture of virtually all basic prisoner rights and privileges.
Denial of Attorney Contact for X-Pod Prisoners
Collins & Collins, P.C. took note of this and began investigating X-Pod. Once we did, we immediately began hearing from inmates and families that NMCD was preventing them from contacting Collins & Collins, P.C. on their medical malpractice claims. This is not new as we have, over the last several months, been hearing from inmates in NMCD facilities around the state that they have not been allowed to contact Collins & Collins, P.C. specifically. The reason given by NMCD for the denials has been according to family and inmate reports that Collins & Collins, P.C. does not represent them.
This is not the standard for prisoners’ access to legal counsel. if this were the standard, no prisoner would ever be able to get legal representation as they would never be allowed to contact an attorney for the purposes of seeking legal representation. This is pure wishful thinking on the part of NMCD. In fact, unless this behavior ceases, Collins & Collins, P.C. will just add it to the pile of lawsuits it has already filed against NMCD.
Importance of Attorney Contact for Inmates in Solitary Confinement
Solitary confinement is considered torture by all developed nations but the U.S. for a reason. Solitary causes severe and permanent psychological harm to its victims. NMCD knows this or they should. Collins & Collins, P.C. alone has two cases pending for two NMCD prisoners that killed themselves while in solitary in the same NMCD facility, Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas (CNMCF) within an hour of one another. For those that survive extended solitary, they will suffer extensive psychological damage for which only intensive psychological counseling and therapy can alleviate.
Access to attorneys for inmates in solitary is critical to their health and in some cases their very survival. Cutting them off from counsel is illegal and morally outrageous. It seems that NMCD prefers to wait until the suicide occurs and the inevitable lawsuit that follows.
Prisoner Access to Legal Counsel Matters to New Mexico Taxpayers
NMCD just requested a budget of $321 million for next year’s operations. That is by any standard a very large sum of money. The budget does include attorneys’ fees and costs for the defense of lawsuits related to NMCD misconduct. To some degree, it also includes the costs of settlements and verdicts resulting from these lawsuits. However, it leaves the greatest costs out of the calculations
Solitary, as discussed, causes severe and permanent psychological harm to prisoners. It can also cause significant physical harm. This harm must be addressed once the prisoner leaves the custody of NMCD. The costs of these harms are then carried by New Mexico taxpayers by way of treatment, homelessness, crime, recidivism and the many other ills resulting from the release of now mentally ill, physically disabled and broken inmates back into the public. These costs have not been calculated and they certainly are not included NMCD’s proposed budget.
NMCD’s Resistance to Reform
We, as do anyone working in the field, marvel at NMCD’s inability to learn from past mistakes. One might attribute this to ignorance. The reality is that there are many vested financial interests that perpetuate the misconduct of NMCD and its contractors. The denial of the right to counsel, along with all the other deprivations of rights and basic dignities of prisoners, is just one way of preserving NMCD’s budget, maximizing profits for its contractors, and making absolutely sure that all NMCD prisoners will be regular returning customers in the future. NMCD is not about rehabilitation. NMCD is about filling beds.
Collins & Collins, P.C. will continue to investigate NMCD, file suits for its seemingly endless misconduct and to do our best to insure that what few rights solitary prisoners have will be preserved so that they do not become another prison suicide case for which NMCD will then disclaim any responsibility.
If your loved one is being denied the right to contact an attorney, contact one yourself to get the ball rolling. If your loved one is being denied the right to contact Collins & Collins, P.C., we would very much like to hear from you. Like Santa, in keeping with the season, we are keeping a list.