Not Forgotten

Not Forgotten Anson Stevens-Bollen

Megan Rodriguez tries to visit her brother Matthew every Friday at the Santa Fe County jail, where he’s awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge. She laments that a man is dead, yet she’s worried now about what’s happening to her brother as he waits in jail to be tried for the crime.

Matthew Rodriguez, then 34, told police he stabbed Mitchell Daniel with a steak knife in March of 2017 because he was "angry at the voices in my head." Daniel, 64, had been living in a van and was found lying outside an apartment complex. After his arrest, Rodriguez began to punch himself in the face in the back of a squad car. Once officers restrained his hands, they say he banged his head against the protective barrier.

Police took him to the hospital to get treatment for those self-inflicted injuries, where he said that he did not mean to hurt Daniel. He asked hospital staff about Daniel’s recovery. But Daniel died, setting in motion a criminal case against Rodriguez, who has pleaded not guilty and is now incarcerated in a jail unit where he’s alone 20 hours a day or more.

His sister and father maintain a weekly visiting schedule because, she says, "nobody wants to be forgotten." Matthew Rodriguez has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, his sister says, diseases that have put him into Northern New Mexico’s threadbare system of mental health care for years. That system’s diminished capacity to treat the most severe cases of mental illness has often landed people such as Rodriguez in jail—and when they get there, the illness often worsens.

A judge denied bail for Rodriguez, leaving him in the care of the jail as the criminal proceedings against him moved forward. Because of the legal complications inherent in a first-degree murder case, he has been one of the jail’s longer-term inmates. And since September, Fridays have been the only days he gets company—that’s when inmates housed in so-called segregation units can receive visitors.

A stocky 36-year-old with a beard, Matthew Rodriguez has been housed in a solitary cell since Sept. 21. That’s when, in the early morning hours in a general population unit, he kicked and punched two inmates in their heads, sending them to the hospital with severe injuries and faces marked with bruises and cuts.

Megan Rodriguez says she’s seen her brother’s condition deteriorate after months in a cell by himself. He receives at most four hours a day outside his cell for showers, recreation, visitation, phone calls and meetings with behavioral health staff.

"It’s not healthy for him to be stuck for that many hours alone," Megan Rodriguez says. "My brother’s severely sick, and we’ve been complaining for a year."

Derek Williams, the jail warden, says Rodriguez "did good all the way to the point where he reached population. And then, unfortunately, we had that incident. We had to go back to square one."

While he has proven to be a faithful messenger for the county, highlighting in the press its efforts to reform mental health care in the year and half that he’s been at the helm, Williams also has to deal with the day-to-day realities of running a jail which, by its very nature, is detrimental to the mental health of anyone who ends up inside its thick concrete walls. The ongoing care of inmates such as Rodriguez captures the difficult balance jails across the state must strike in protecting public safety without worsening the mental health of the inmates inside.

At any given time, about 2 percent of inmates, or about 12 people, are similarly situated in solitary housing in the Santa Fe County jail, according to figures from Williams. It’s impossible to tell how Santa Fe County jail stats stacks up to jails across the state; there is no requirement for them to track how they practice solitary confinement.

In fact, corrections officials no longer use the phrase "solitary confinement." It is now "special management" or "restricted housing." They say the shift in rhetoric surrounding the practice reflects a move to more humane practices. At the same time, the Santa Fe jail also stopped providing a unit for inmates transitioning from solitary units to general population (though Williams says the jail is trying to get it back up and running again). But experts agree that involuntary isolation, however you put it, can have devastating impacts on anyone’s state of mind.

Matthew Rodriguez has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, his sister Megan says, diseases that have put him into Northern New Mexico’s threadbare system of mental health care for years. Megan (left) visits him weekly. |

This year, the county jail reached a milestone: 10 years since it agreed to a settlement with the US Department of Justice, which claimed the jail was violating inmates’ civil rights in part by not providing basic mental health care. The county denied the allegations, but nevertheless signed a 2008 settlement mandating certain staffing levels in mental health care and reforming some of its practices in that area.

"Incoming inmates who present with current risk of suicide or other acute mental health needs will be immediately referred for a mental health evaluation by a mental health professional," the agreement reads, in part. "Staff will observe such inmates until they are seen by mental health professionals. Incoming inmates reporting these conditions will be housed under appropriate conditions in the Health Services Unit unless and until a mental health care professional clears them for housing in segregation or with the general population."

Yet in the decade that’s passed, what some (including Justice Department prosecutors) thought of as best practices for managing inmates’ mental health care have been upended; a slate of new research now shows that putting people in an isolated cell for long periods of time can send their mental health into a spiral. Lack of human interaction and sensory deprivation can worsen conditions that already present significant challenges.

Speaking of Matthew Rodriguez’ months-long placement in segregation, Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, says: "Someone who has severe mental illness, the possible consequences of their experiencing long periods of isolation are pretty dramatic that, you know, an already serious illness can escalate pretty significantly in a pretty short period of time. So I think whatever conditions he’s kept under have to account for that."

That’s why placing inmates in any kind of segregated housing poses legal risks for the county. Judges in New Mexico have awarded multi-million-dollar judgments to inmates who say in lawsuits that the devastating mental health effects of isolation, as well as lack of avenues for inmates to petition against placement in segregated housing units, violate their constitutional rights. In 2011, a United Nations expert argued solitary confinement practices in the United States can rise to the level of torture, and therefore should be banned in most cases, especially where the inmate already has a mental health condition.

County jails and state prisons have multi-disciplinary teams composed of security, behavioral health workers and case managers "who go through every day and visually and vocally correspond, check on that person to make sure that they’re getting those things. Making sure that every day they’re going out to yard, they’re communicating with their family and so forth," he says.

Rodriguez is one of the jail’s inmates who, for a variety of reasons from discipline to protective custody, has been placed in one of the jail’s solitary housing units, according to Williams. The number fluctuates from roughly a dozen to about 24 in the segregation unit, largely because of the the nature of jail itself—people are accused of, not convicted of, crimes.

Just before 3 am on Sept. 21, Rodriguez paced in the day room of the unit. Inmate Raymond Bernal walked to the bathroom. Rodriguez approached Bernal and pushed him to the ground. Bernal struggled to keep Rodriguez at bay by kicking him. But Rodriguez overpowered Bernal, kicking him in the head until he lay motionless. Other inmates in the pod intervened.

Both inmates declined to press charges against Rodriguez, and were taken to the hospital. A corrections officer handcuffed Rodriguez and took him to a segregation unit that morning, after the jail’s chief of security found that he "poses [a] direct threat towards others by displaying aggressive and assaultive behavior."

On Feb. 19, jail staff reviewed Rodriguez’ placement in segregation; a jail sergeant wrote in a special management placement form that Rodriguez was being involuntarily placed in segregation because he "poses a threat to the security of the facility." Williams says the jail cannot release him back into general population.

Wary of photographs, Williams nevertheless flashes a smile for the camera while sitting next to an American flag that hangs in his dimly lit corner office at the jail. Early in life, he found a steady income to support his family in corrections administration; it’s been his chosen field for some two decades in county, state and federal jails and prisons.

He and other New Mexico jailers have come around to the notion that segregation will only worsen certain mental health conditions. The county hired Williams at a $95,000 annual salary in December 2016; he currently makes $103,000. He was selected in part for his prior work in behavioral health care units at state prisons. One assignment was oversight of a treatment team that helped transition more than a dozen of the state’s most dangerous inmates into general population from a mental healthcare unit.

The inmates were the "worst of the worst," Williams says, requiring five-point restraints, suicide watches and seclusion rooms. But a spate of new programming, including group therapy, helped transition many of the inmates to the general population, according to Ortiz, who was a psychologist on Williams’ team in the state prison and who followed him across the highway to the county jail. She’s now the highest-paid employee there, making $280,800 annually. She called the inmates’ transition "miraculous."

But while Ortiz and Williams were able to work miracles on long-term inmates in the state penitentiary, they both say managing the mental health care of a constantly changing jail population poses unique challenges. Ortiz oversees a team that includes six therapists with masters degrees who conduct daily checks on inmates in each of the jail’s six pods. At capacity, that’s roughly one therapist for every 100 inmates.

"And that really makes sense," Williams says. "Because when you think about it, if people are coming in here and you’re saying, ‘Oh you’re a sex offender, you should be over here. Oh, you’re from this group? You should be over here.’ You’re teaching them something that’s not going to be beneficial when they get released. Because when they get released, they don’t get to pick who their neighbors are going to be, who they go to the store with and who’s next to them in line. So in reality, you know, if we’re really serious about preparing people to going back into the community, we have to have enhanced diversity. We’ve got to get them used to living with people of different backgrounds, different cultures and different beliefs."

Derek Williams, warden at the Santa Fe County jail, says a lack of resources led him to shut down the housing unit for for inmates transitioning from solitary units to general population. | Justin Horwath

He says the county jails were some of the biggest opponents of the legislative measure, citing safety issues inherent in putting dangerous inmates into general population. Asked what jail wardens should do with inmates such as Rodriguez, Maestas says there’s a gamut of management tools for such situations. Maestas could not name any specifics, but said jail wardens across the state should help provide solutions for the next legislative session with a new governor, when he’ll reintroduce the legislation.

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