SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) - New Mexico has held a man in solitary confinement for seven years, calling it "protective custody," though it's to cover up staffing shortages at a brutal prison, the man claims in court.
Justin Hinzo says he has suffered severe damage, physical and emotional, since being put into solitary at the state prison in Santa Fe in July 2007. He has been in the highest level of solitary confinement, Level VI, since January 2008. He sued the governor and top prisons officials on Nov. 30 in Federal Court.
Locked alone for 23 hours a day in a 12-by-7-foot cell without natural light, fresh air or adequate heating or cooling, without adequate medical care, bathing facilities or access to books or other media, Hinzo says the de facto torture has permanently disabled him, distorting his perceptions of time and space, given him crippling insomnia alternating with hypervigilance, paranoia, depression, mania and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Hinzo calls his prison "a maximum security prison with one of the most brutal histories in the prison-industrial complex."
Due to chronic staffing shortages, Hinzo says, "officers would label inmates as 'informers' to control and manipulate them. This tactic was known as the 'snitch game.'
"The 'snitch game' was put in place to address a chronic staffing shortage that exists to his day.
"In the 'snitch game,' an inmate is forced to either become an informer on other inmates or be labeled an informer by the guards.
"Under either premise, the inmate can be placed in protective custody under the New Mexico Department of Corrections policy of involuntary inmate protection.
"The 'snitch game' results in unjustified, indefinite periods of long-term solitary confinement, i.e. involuntary inmate protection, a policy that is unconstitutional on its face."
Hinzo claims that defendant Gregg Marcantel, secretary of state prisons, is well aware of the debilitating effects of solitary confinement. Marcantel voluntarily spent 48 hours in solitary to appear on a TV show, "Undercover Bosses," Hinzo says in the lawsuit.
After just two days, Hinzo says, Marcantel told the TV show: "I'm feeling a little nauseated and I'm standing at the door now and I'm looking outside and I'm realizing that I can't get on the other side of the door. I felt like the cell was kind of squeezing down on me."
Hinzo says he has been on lockdown for 24 hours a day since mid-October. In t hose six week he has not been allowed to exercise, and has been allowed showers twice a week.
This is not protective, Hinzo says, it is torture.
"The brutal confinement and isolation at Level VI New Mexico State Prison Santa Fe have no valid penological purpose and, along with the widespread use of long-term solitary confinement in America, are condemned by the international community as nothing less than torture," the complaint states.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, Hinzo is serving 28 years for killing one man and wounding another in a fight at a trailer park in 2002. The sentence was enhanced because he had prior convictions and used a weapon as a felon, the Journal reported today.
A Department of Prison spokesman denied Hinzo's allegations, telling the Journal that Hinzo refuses to take showers, has access to medical care, and is kept in a cell with a window.
Hinzo seeks punitive damages for state torts, negligence, false imprisonment and constitutional violations, including cruel and unusual punishment. He also wants to be released from solitary confinement, a medical evaluation and $1.4 million.
He is represented by Jason Flores-Williams, of Santa Fe.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.