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New Mexico Wages War Against Prison Gangs

By Dennis Domrzalski

JUNE 14, 1999:  New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Rob Perry knew during his first year on the job that the state's prison system had a problem. "We had four inmate homicides in 1997. It ranked us first in the country for inmate mortality per capita," Perry said.

Then there were the letters that Perry got and continues to get from inmates.

"I wanna make it out alife [sic] without holes in me sir," one inmate wrote earlier this year.

"I fear for my life sir! I know for a fact they wanna hit me in the north sir."

"They are the cause of the murders and the stabbings," another prisoner wrote to Gov. Gary Johnson. "They are ignored by prison officials."

The "they" that inmate referred to was explained to Perry in a letter that a third inmate wrote to him recently:

"These gangs are extortionists, robbers, drug users and dealers, they group up and assault one inmate 10 to one. They use threats to put fear in other inmates to give up their personal belongings, money and canteen items. These gangs set fire to inmates' cells. They lock their cell doors to protect what little they own. They make weapons and stab inmates, and on a weekly basis three to five inmates go to protective custody at each prison. The same amount get assaulted and stabbed weekly.

"Don't let anyone play down to you the extent of prison gangs and their illegal acts. I've lived here in prison for four years. ... I've done 12 years altogether in prisons. The staff fear for their lives each time they walk in a unit full of violent prisoners, change of policies with corrections needed real soon."

Perry knew and knows that the state's prison system has a problem with gangs. Over the years, the gangs have tried to take control of the prisons by terrorizing other inmates. Now, Perry and his colleagues in the Corrections Department are trying to take the prisons back from the gangs.

Perry's tool is a newly instituted program that calls for known gangs and gang members in the prisons to be identified. If it's found that the gangs and gang members pose a security threat to the prison they're in and to its inmates, and if the gang members do things that threaten the prison's security, they can be put into what amounts to 240 days of solitary confinement where their rights and privileges are severely restricted.

The concept of the program, referred to as Special Management or Intense Supervision Units, is that inmates who earn their way into trouble must earn their way out. The four-phase process takes 11 months to complete. But an inmate who gets a bad disciplinary report during that time can be sent back to phase one to start the program all over again.

Since February, the Corrections Department has identified at least 36 inmates who allegedly posed a threat to their prisons and put time into the Intense Supervision Units, Perry said. About 23 are currently in the ISU.

Although Perry is confident that the program will make the prisons safer for the inmates who want to do their time and get out, the program has at least one critic.

Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli, who represented prison inmates in a case that led to the Duran Consent Decree, said the Corrections Department is using the new program to punish inmates simply because they belong to gangs and even though they've done nothing to disrupt prison life. The Duran Decree is a court order that obligated the Corrections Department to make its prisons humane places.

"Before one should be labeled a threat to the institution, they should be required to participate in some overt act that threatens the security of the institution, not simply affiliation," Donatelli said. "There is a gap in reasoning there, and it runs counter to sound corrections policy."

In a brief filed in April in U.S. District Court, Donatelli said the conditions in the Intense Supervision Units are harsh, that decisions to put inmates into the ISUs are arbitrary and capricious and that the gangs identified appear to be predominantly Hispanic. He also said that the tension created by the ISUs could lead to a recreation of conditions that led to the 1980 Santa Fe prison riot in which 33 people were killed. It was the worst prison riot in U.S. history.

Perry said that Donatelli doesn't know what he's talking about. He said that no inmates have been placed in ISU merely for being affiliated with a gang.

The Plan

The first step of the program is to validate an inmate as a member of a Security Threat Group, or a gang. "They are identified as a validated member not on just the good old boy snitch network," Perry said. "There are objective criteria such as self-admission, judicial records, pre-sentence reports, tattoos, things that are found in a cell identifying them as a gang member. We can also use confidential information, but that can only get you to a certain point. You need a minimum of two or three different validation factors. We want something that will stand up in court."After a gang is identified as a Security Threat Group, prison officials post notice in the prisons that the gang is certified as such and that an inmate's involvement in the gang can lead to disciplinary action.

"Once members are validated, they are notified that they are a validated member and subject to discipline," Perry said. "But we do not discipline until illicit activity or other gang activity occurs."

The "validation" of inmates is done by an Institutional Reclassification Committee, and not by one person, Perry said.

A validated inmate who violates prison rules can be put into the Intense Supervision Unit, which amounts to solitary confinement. The first phase lasts 60 days. The next three phases are 90 days each. If all goes well, at the end of 11 months the inmate will be put back in the general prison population.

Phase One

This 60-day period is the harshest phase of the program. Inmates are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. Donatelli's brief described this phase: "The inmate is not allowed out of his cell with the exception of the time necessary for three showers per week and one hour of recreation, five days a week. For recreation, only one inmate at a time is allowed in a recreation pen. It appears that the cages are devoid of any equipment except dip bars. Departmental policy only allows limited institutional exceptions to this virtual isolation for medical, mental health, or classification consultations. An inmate is allowed one five-minute call to a family once a month, if he exhibits clear conduct. All meals are eaten in his cell. Commissary is restricted to the essential items of personal hygiene. Inmates are also forbidden from using cigarettes. ... There is no access to radio or television. Reading is limited to two books per week. It is reported that inmates are not even allowed to have a Bible. For convictions entered after 1988, inmates are prohibited from receiving good time credit, even though they have violated no institutional rules. There is no visiting from family members for the first 30 days of confinement at ISU. For the next 30 days, the inmate is permitted one 30-minute, non-contact visit per month if he maintains clear conduct."

If the inmate gets through that 60 day period without a disciplinary complaint, he goes to the next phase of the program.

Phase Two

During this 90-day period, inmates are allowed two phone calls a week and non-contact visits. They are allowed a radio with an earplug, have limited access to the canteen and commissary and have a couple of hours out of their cell a day. They also have limited educational or vocational programming.

Phase Three

This is another 90-day period in which inmates have much more extensive educational and vocational programming and much more time out of their cells. Inmates also have increased visitation and commissary privileges.

Phase Four

During this 90-day period inmates are returned to the general population to see how they fare. It is basically a 90-day probationary period. During this period, inmates are locked down in their cells only eight hours a day. They go to school and work and are able to take advantage of all the programs the prisons offer.

Regaining Control

Perry said the ISU program is necessary because gang members in the prisons have come to control and terrorize other inmates."Recognize that 80 to 90 percent of inmates want to participate in rehabilitative programs, vocational training, institutional jobs, do their time and be released," Perry said. "Other states have been focusing efforts on controlling that 10 to 20 percent of inmates that are gangsters, disruptive to programs, and prey on weaker inmates. As one old hand told me, "Prison would not be a bad place if you didn't have to live with other prisoners.'

"So other states have devised systems to identify and lock the gangsters up in prison, within a prison."

But in his brief to the federal court, Donatelli said the ISU program is "reckless and illegal," especially when an inmate can be sent back to the beginning of the 11 month process for minor disciplinary infractions.

"A finding of guilt for any misconduct report, including a minor violation, during any of the four levels returns the inmate to level 1, and he must, as Sisyphus, begin again to roll his boulder uphill in Hades," the brief said, adding that the effect of the ISU is to worsen inmate behavior problems.

"The long term effects of such isolation, however, are even more insidious. Those with even marginal mental health concerns decompensate greatly," the brief said. "Those otherwise healthy inmates develop symptoms of mental illness. In fact, the lack of human contact becomes so stressful to inmates that they may commit institutional offenses as a means of obtaining otherwise forbidden human interaction. Many of the current residents of the ISU boasted relatively long records of clear conduct. Since their designation to ISU, they have received several disciplinary reports. The level of tension in this unit is palpable. The inmates are frustrated by their arbitrary placement in the unit. As material and human deprivations take a psychological toll, the likelihood that an inmate will commit a disciplinary offense increases and, upon conviction of a disciplinary offense, his return to level 1 is assured."

Perry said that some inmates in the ISU have tried to flood their cells (by plugging up their toilets with toilet paper) and tried to set fires. How do they set fires? By heating the paper clips attached to their legal documents in electrical outlets and putting the hot ends to paper.

What have they burned?

Copies of the ISU policy, Perry said.

Perry also said that he believes the ISU policy is working and is reducing gang violence and influence in the prisons.

"My Security Threat Groups coordinators are the people responsible for gathering intelligence, and they have been telling me that it has been positively received by staff and other inmates. The inmate commissary business is up so the inmates are buying tennis shoes because they're not afraid of getting [them] ripped off anymore, which used to be commonplace.

"We haven't had a gang homicide since it started. Assaults seem to be down considerably -- inmate assaults based on gang activity -- and we're noticing a lot less tagging or gang graffiti.

"The self-identification -- they don't self-ID [themselves as gang members] anymore. They don't tattoo nearly as much, so it goes in with the concept that we are disrupting the gang activity. I'm certainly a realist, and I don't think that gang activity will be dismantled overnight, but the intent of the program to disrupt the activities seems to be indicating positive results."

U.S. District Judge John Conway has ordered the special master in the Duran Consent case to review the implications of the ISU program's restriction in privileges as well as the overall effect of prisoner isolation on the compliance of the Correction Department's Duran Decree mental health efforts.

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