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Investigation and Reporting of New Mexico Prison Suicides

Reporting of Inmate Deaths to Family

The New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) provides policies regarding what is to happen when an inmate dies, is injured or becomes seriously ill while in custody. Those policies may be referenced on the NMCD web-site under the health services policy section, CD-172100 Notification of Serious Illness, Injury or Death of an Inmate and Procedure in the Event of an Inmate Death. One of the first steps involves providing notification to next of kin or designated contact of the inmate’s condition or that he or she has died. Inmates, upon admission to a correctional facility, are required to list an emergency point of contact. NMCD Policy regarding notification of the next of kin reads as follows;

“Whenever possible, NMCD shall immediately notify the next of kin or other person regarding the serious illness, injury or death of an inmate. In notifying these person(s), the warden/ designee is responsible for informing the relative in a manner that is respectful, courteous, compassionate and objective.”

It further stipulates that the staff member charged with providing the family with the news shall first consult with appropriate medical staff at the facility before disclosing what has happened. In the event of death, the warden or designee shall inform the family that the inmate has died and that funeral arrangements will be made. The specific form that is to be completed is the Next of Kin Notification CD-172101.1. Despite clear policy direction regarding immediate notification of the next of kin in the event of the death of an inmate, long delays or complete failures in the notification of the designated parties seems to be a frequent occurrence.

Standards, Policies and Procedures

The aforementioned departmental policy on notification and procedure in the event of an inmate death is further shaped by standards set forth by the American Corrections Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). The current contractual agreement between the New Mexico Corrections Department and its current private healthcare contractor took effect on June 1, 2016. The contract clearly states the obligations of the private health care services contractor in relation to ACA and NCCHC standards;

“The goal and requirement of this Agreement is to provide comprehensive health care services, within a secure environment, within available funds, and in accordance with the standards of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), the American Correctional Association (ACA), current community standards of care, and NMCD procedures contained herein.”

As we noted in a previous article at least one prison, the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF) was not accredited by the ACA from 2015 forward and did not obtain accreditation until the beginning of 2019. Thus, for nearly four years this facility lacked ACA accreditation. As for accreditation from the NCCHC, Collins & Collins, P.C. has submitted dozens of records requests under the parameters of the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) and as of March 1, 2019 not a single state correctional institution, public or private, has been accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) since the date of the new contract in June 2016.

NMCD Standards and Policies Derive from ACA

In the aforementioned NMCD policy section on the procedures relating to the death of an inmate, the applicable ACA Standards are drawn from the ACA Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions, 4th Edition; 4-4395, 4- 4410 and 4-4425. The first of these specifies that a process for the notification of designated individuals must be in place, paralleling NMCD policy. ACA Mandatory Standard 4-4410 “Internal Review and Quality Assurance” provides a number of very specific elements that should be in place at facilities and notes that, “A system of well-documented internal review will be developed and implemented by the health authority”.

Policy and Procedure in the Event of an Inmate Suicide

In the event of an inmate suicide, there are a couple of levels of review. The first is the Suicide Review Committee. The second is the Joint Mortality Review Committee (JMRC). The requirements of both are set forth below.

NMCD Suicide Review Committee (SRC)

In the event of a suicide, NMCD policy stipulates that a Suicide Review Committee (SRC) shall be convened within 30 days of the inmate’s death and the committee will be comprised of the following members; “NMCD Psychologist, Contract Facility Health Administrator, Warden or designee and other selected staff as needed.”

The Suicide Review Committee (SRC), according to policy, is to complete the following steps in its review:

  • Review the medical records and the mental health section of the medical record, including autopsy and toxicology reports, if available.
    Review any reports, including information reports, investigation reports, and any NMCD documents relevant to the incident.
  • Make recommendation concerning disciplinary actions, policy and procedural changes, as necessary.
  • The regional director of psychiatry of the medical vendor will consolidate the above information and provide a psychology autopsy final report within 14 days of an inmate suicide

Joint Mortality Review Committee (JMRC).

In addition to the review and subsequent report to be completed by the Suicide Review Committee, all inmate deaths are also to be reviewed by the Joint Mortality Review Committee (JMRC). The issues to be reviewed by the JMRC include;

  • Review the appropriateness of health care provided;
    Make recommendations concerning staff or discipline and policy or procedures changes, if any;
  • Review the autopsy and toxicology report;
  • Publish a final JMRC report on the inmate death utilizing the mortality review committee final report form.

Investigate the Death Yourself, Do Not Rely on the Word of NMCD

The designated contact that the inmate lists during the intake process should receive a copy of the report completed by the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI), but this may be after a considerable period of time has elapsed. The delays in notification and waiting for additional information or reports can hazard any potential claim you might have. Due to short deadlines on claims against NMCD, it is important to keep track of the investigation and autopsy. Surviving loved ones should not place any reliance at all on what is conveyed to them by NMCD. To do so is to risk any possible legal claims in the event of wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to get the information you need from NMCD. NMCD will do all that it can to avoid legal claims. NMCD will not freely release damaging information. The bottom line is that surviving loved ones will likely need to seek legal assistance if they are to get any answers to what happened to their loved one.

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