February 27, 2019

Guv’s pick for corrections secretary backs out of job

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the hunt for a new corrections secretary after Julie Jones — the former Florida prison system leader the governor had tapped for the position at the end of January — announced Tuesday she’s no longer able to take the job.

“It’s with a heavy heart that I decline my appointment as the Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Corrections,” Jones wrote in a letter she submitted to the Governor’s Office on Tuesday.

“As you know,” the letter continued, “I had scheduled time off prior to starting my tenure as Secretary. Since my return, there have been several unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico. You have a bold vision for your state and I truly regret not being a part of your team.”

Before being named secretary-designate by Lujan Grisham at the end of January, Jones had since 2014 overseen a prison system with more than 10 times the budget and number of inmates as New Mexico’s prison system.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Friday that Jones left her Florida post because the incoming governor in that state didn’t retain any Cabinet secretaries when he took office in January.

Jones had not yet moved to New Mexico, received any money from the state or performed any formal work as of Tuesday, according to the Governor’s Office.

“I’m sorry to see her withdraw her candidacy, because I felt and feel she would have been exactly the keen-eyed, experienced leader the agency needs,” Lujan Grisham said Tuesday in a written statement distributed by her office. “We have already reopened our search and will be conducting interviews expeditiously.”

In the meantime, Stelnicki said in an email, Deputy Director of Adult Prisons Melanie Martinez will be the point person at the Department of Corrections for the Governor’s Office, and division directors will remain in place.

Had she taken the job, Jones, 62, would have been responsible for overseeing 11 state prisons that hold more than 7,000 inmates and the Probation and Parole Division, which monitors more than 17,000 people.

She also likely would have encountered many of the same issues she grappled with in Florida, including staffing shortages, lawsuits over inmate deaths, and ensuring that inmates receive proper mental health and medical care.

Thanks to low salaries, rural locations and stressful working conditions, New Mexico prisons operate with an average worker vacancy rate of 25 percent — a figure that spikes to 43 percent in privately run prisons.

Lujan Grisham’s transition team reported the shortage has resulted in low morale in state prisons and is making them less safe for workers and inmates.

“Some correctional officers are working 16-hour shifts,” according to a report from Lujan Grisham’s transition team. “Others are working consecutive shifts, with only a few hours break in between. Employee burnout is reported across professions … and hiring standards/qualifications have been lowered to increase recruitment.”

A report says short staffing also is leading to fewer programs for inmates “and has created a prison system with ‘too many idle inmates.’ Overtime costs to cover mandatory security posts and other critical roles cost the department $18 million last year.”

A steady stream of lawsuits from inmates alleging poor, delayed or denied medical care continue to be filed in state and federal courts, despite a switch in medical care providers in 2016 from Corizon Healthcare to Centurion Managed Care. Corizon faced lawsuits from more than 200 inmates in the nine years it held the state contract.

New Mexico also leads the nation in the rate of its inmates — nearly half — who are held in prisons run by private companies, and many of the state’s aging prison facilities are at or nearing capacity.

These issues have been building for years, and many of them are ripe for attention — something Stelnicki said makes filling the job even more important.

He said Lujan Grisham is “determined to clean up the messes” left behind by the prior administration and has a “fiery sense of urgency” when it comes to finding a new leader for the Corrections Department.

“It’s not just getting a good person in place,” Stelnicki said. “There is so much that needs to be done and that process can’t take place until the right person is there. She’s fully cognizant of that.”

Stelnicki said Tuesday the Governor’s Office had a number of candidates interested in the position during the first search and already has spoken with someone who might be interested in filling the post; he declined to elaborate on those potential candidates.