ALBUQUERQUE, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Civil rights leaders charged Tuesday that special programs instituted at New Mexico prisons in the past three years have violated the rights of inmates and created a new set of mental health problems.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is seeking to dismantle a program called "cognitive restructuring," which is used with administrative segregation in the state's prison system, said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-New Mexico.
"This is an extreme program of sensory deprivation masquerading as a psychological education program," he said Tuesday.
Inmates are kept locked in their cells most of the day with few privileges and required to take lessons in the behavior control program. They are tested over a year and rewarded with improved living conditions if they pass certain tests, the ACLU alleges.
The ACLU-New Mexico filed a lawsuit Monday seeking a court injunction against the New Mexico Department of Corrections, calling the program inhumane and a violation of the inmates' constitutional rights and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Six inmates who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit suffer from mental disabilities, and they claim that their conditions have worsened because of the programs.
In addition to the corrections department, the defendants include wardens of prisons at Santa Fe and Las Cruces, other corrections officials and former Corrections Secretary Rob Perry.
The New Mexico Department of Corrections had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.
Perry, who is now a Republican candidate for attorney general, established the "supermax" prisons and "level system" classification for disruptive and difficult inmates, according to a press release issued earlier this year when he resigned.
The program, which was recommended by an Independent Board of Inquiry, led to an 80 percent system-wide reduction in inmate-on-inmate prison violence. The inmate-on-inmate homicide rate went from the highest in the country to the lowest, the release stated.
Although administrative segregation is used in other prison systems around the country to control unruly inmates, Simonson said it has "extreme circumstances attached" in New Mexico.
"People are denied any extrasensory stimuli, they are limited on the amount of correspondence from family, they are limited in even reading and writing materials, to religious services," he said. "You are stuck in your cell for 23 hours a day and there are few other facilities, even super max, that are so austere in the way they treat prisoners in administrative segregation."
In the "cognitive restructuring" program, inmates are given lessons and follow-up tests to determine if they have learned the lessons, according to the ACLU. They can advance from being locked up 23 hours a day through "levels" to better living conditions.
Teachers, not psychiatrists or psychologists, administer the program. If they find an inmate has violated a rule of the program, that individual could lose any accumulated privileges, without any right of appeal, the civil rights group alleged.