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Understaffing in New Mexico Prisons Contributes to Inmate Suicides

Prison Suicide Prevention Standards, Policies and Procedures

New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) policies for the prevention of suicide presumably follow the policies and standards set forth by the American Corrections Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). It is not clear from at all from a review of NMCD ACA and NCCHC accreditation that this is in fact the case.

ACA and NCCHC Accreditation Very Important Until June 2016

A casual stroll through NMCD inmate health policies shows countless references to the ACA and NCCHC (NCCHC references have either been deleted are in the process of deletion which will be discussed below). However, the General Services Contract (the Contract) entered in June 2016 between NMCD and its current health care provider, the importance of the ACA and NCCHC was stressed repeatedly. That hasn’t changed.

In fact, compliance with the ACA and NCCHC is stated in the opening paragraphs as part of the “goals and requirement” of the contract:

“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.”

Lack of ACA and NCCHC Accreditation Closely Related to Medical and Mental Health Negligence

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. It is no coincidence that this is the same facility where two recent suicides occurred on the same day within hours of each other.

As for accreditation from the NCCHC, Collins & Collins, P.C. has submitted dozens of records requests under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) and as of March 1, 2019 not a single NMCD correctional institution has been accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) since the date of the new contract in June 2016.

In fact, it has been determined through IPRA requests that NMCD decided at some point after June 2016 to cease even seeking NCCHC accreditation. This is remarkable on many counts not the least of which are the repeated provisions of the Contract that mandate NCCHC accreditation.

The lack of respect or concern for the relatively moderate standards of medical and mental health care for inmates established by the ACA and NCCHC is most certainly related to widespread medical negligence and neglect of mental health care in NMCD facilities.

Recent Suicides in NMCD Facilities

On December 2, 2018 two inmates committed suicide in the same correctional facility—on the same day. In a previous article, we began looking at what happened in those two cases. Collins & Collins, P.C. represents the families in both cases and during the initial stages of our investigation and representation there have been multiple red flags. The first item of concern was the notification of designated points of contact in both deaths. Secondly, the fact that the facility, Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, lacked accreditation by both the American Corrections Association (ACA) and National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) raised additional concerns. A third area that caused alarm revolved around the issue of staffing—or, rather, gross understaffing.

Pervasive Mental Health Understaffing in New Mexico Prisons

According to a report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee published on October 23, 2018 and entitled, “Program Evaluation: Corrections Department – Status of Programs to Reduce Recidivism and Oversight of Medical Services” the vacancy rate for Behavioral Health Providers at the CNMCF was 50%.

The Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF), where both of the suicides occurred, provides—or is supposed to provide—heightened levels of medical care to inmates with serious medical and mental health needs. Two glaring problems arise here. CNMCF was not ACA accredited from June 2016 until January 2019. CNMCF, along with all other NMCD facilities, has decided not to even seek NCCHC accreditation since June 2016.

It is no coincidence that the legislative finance report referenced above indicates 100% vacancy rate for mental health providers and behavioral health providers at CNMCF as of the date of the report. The problem of gross understaffing goes to the heart of NMCD’s indifference to the mental health needs of the state’s inmates. This is reflected in NMCD’s system-wide understaffing as indicated in the Legislative Report:

“The Corrections Department’s Office of the Medical Director, state employees who are responsible for overseeing the care, opportunities and education necessary for patients to improve their health…had a 25 percent vacancy rate as of October 2018. Two vacancies were for nurse auditors to oversee medical service provision. The Mental Health Bureau, responsible for providing services to inmates in state prisons, had a 40 percent total vacancy rate, of which most were behavioral and mental health therapists.”

The Costs of Neglect of Inmate Mental Health

The costs of neglecting the mental health of New Mexico prison inmates are many. First and foremost, it is inhumane and barbaric to lock away mentally ill people with no regard to their illnesses or their treatment. This is perhaps most pronounced in the case of solitary confinement (or segregation as those folks who trivialize the inhumanity of the practice like to call it). Fortunately, this issue has been addressed in part by recent legislation signed by Governor Lujan Grisham.

Second, and related to the first, the purpose of criminal punishment in New Mexico is suppose to be rehabilitative. In New Mexico, imprisonment is anything but rehabilitative. The problem is particularly pronounced among mentally ill inmates. Many inmates are in prison chiefly because of their mental illnesses. Rather than address this reality, New Mexico prisons amplify the mental illness through the gross medical neglect of mentally ill inmates.

Lets say finally, but there are many other costs which would require a treatise to address, there is the costs to taxpayers. What is the costs of taking a mentally ill person and making the illness exponentially worse? What is the costs to the inmate? What is the costs to the families? What is the costs to the communities to which inmates almost invariably return? What are the costs to New Mexico taxpayers to address these folks in emergency rooms, future arrests, future incarcerations and future treatment to repair the harm done to them while in prison.

The answers to these questions are fairly apparent and if they do not move the prisons to reform, there is the costs of lawsuits the payouts on any one of which could entirely cover the costs of the understaffing. Yet the cycle continues.

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