April 14, 2020

ACLU, public defender’s office calls on NM to release more inmates amid COVID-19

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New Mexico’s Law Offices of the Public Defender and the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court, asking the high court to order the mass release of inmates as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19 in state jails. 

“People in congregate environments (where people live, eat, and sleep in close proximity) like prisons and jails face increased danger of contracting COVID-19, as already evidenced by the rapid spread of the virus on cruise ships and in nursing homes,” the petition read. “For example, New Mexico’s major outbreak events have thus far been in long-term care facilities.”

The petition is the latest of attempts by both groups to lower detention center populations. 

The two groups are asking the state’s high court to order the governor and the state’s Corrections Department to “Immediately review all corrections inmates” and work to quickly release those who are incarcerated for probation or parole violations, inmates who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, those who have a year or less left on their sentence, non-violent offenders and pregnant inmates. 

The two groups are also asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to implore the state to stop jailing people for technical probation or parole violations, identify those who are eligible for gereatric or medical parole and to hold expedited parole hearings.  

Last month Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham began ordering the release of some inmates in state facilities, but the LOPD and the New Mexico ACLU argued that those releases will not fully address the problem. 

“However, that order describes a very narrow class of inmates, and in the short-term (when NM will experience a peak in the stress in health care infrastructure) will reduce the prison populations by only about ten inmates statewide,” the petition read. 

The two groups argued in their petition that “Many inmates live in dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, sleeping in beds close together,” making it hard for inmates to practice social-distancing. 

“Put simply, inmates do not have the privilege of protecting themselves from infection,” the petition read. “New Mexico prisons lack adequate infrastructure to address the spread of infectious disease and the treatment of people most vulnerable to illness.”

Since New Mexico first reported positive COVID-19 tests, many criminal justice stakeholders have been pushing for limited in-person court proceedings and a reduction of inmates in both state and county detention centers. District attorneys and defense attorneys have reportedly been working together to release inmates and limit the number of people going into jail, with varying degrees of success. 

The LOPD and the New Mexico ACLU, in their petition, urged the state Supreme Court to “consider the deviation and human suffering that will likely result if current social isolation are not applied to incarcerated people.”