A recent New Mexico Corrections Department report detailing solitary confinement has revealed that a 47-year-old Raton man, Max Ortega III, has been held in solitary confinement since last December, not due to punishment, but due to his trial date continually being pushed back.

Corrections spokesman Eric Harrison told Taos News that Ortega is not officially a state prisoner but is a Colfax County jail inmate being held under terms of a memorandum of understanding with the county.

Harrison said that Ortega has been kept in solitary for nearly a year because his court date keeps getting postponed.

“In this situation we don’t have control over his trial date and the inmate does not have control over his trial date so that is the unfortunate situation there,” Harrison told the newspaper. “It was ‘hopefully the trial is soon, the trial is soon,’ but at certain point, 10 months later, trial clearly is not soon. It’s time to do something.”

Harrison said on Thursday, Oct. 24, that Director of Adult Prisons John Gay saw the report, released Wednesday, and said “right now they are working to get him out of solitary.”

A law passed during the 2019 legislative session that restricts the use of solitary confinement for pregnant, juvenile and mentally ill inmates mandated the report.

It requires all state and county correctional facilities to report the age, gender and ethnicity of each inmate placed or held in solitary during each three-month reporting period, as well as the reasons restricted housing was imposed and the dates when the inmate was put in and taken out of solitary.

This first report listed 1,160 times solitary was used in the span.

In this first report, the most popular reason solitary confinement was used was for prisoners awaiting trial, like Ortega. The second most popular use from solitary was for prisoners being transferred.

Solitary confinement is defined as an inmate being confined away from the general prison population for at least 22 hours in a day.  

Proponents of solitary confinement have said it is an important tool for keeping prisoners and prisons safe. Opponents say solitary confinement can have a devastating impact on mental health.

In February of this year the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and University of New Mexico released a report that revealed New Mexico uses the practice of solitary confinement at a rate of nine percent; ranking the state among the top five states with the greatest percent of inmates in solitary confinement.

Ortega was originally arrested in April of 2018 during an early morning raid by Raton and state police and charged with four counts of trafficking controlled substances, four counts of possession of a controlled substance, four counts of tampering with evidence and use or possession of drug paraphernalia. According to the criminal complaint, at that time, Ortega is alleged to have sold heroin between March 24, and March 29, 2018.

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