Accounts from inmates on COVID-19 response differs from officials’

Stanley Igram says he’s turned his life around in prison.

Speaking with NM Political Report by phone last week from the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, Ingram talked about his plans after his release, scheduled for later this year. 

“I’m gonna have to be in Tucumcari for a little bit, but my plan is to follow my career, man,” Ingram said. “I mean I got a degree in wind energy and you know, there’s things I can do.”

Ingram, who’s from Tucumcari, has a long list of priors, but he said it was his drug addiction that led to his downfall. He said it was inside the detention center walls where he found religion, began leading a “black awareness” group and got his degree. But amid a COVID-19 pandemic, Ingram said he’s getting increasingly nervous about each day he stays in prison, awaiting his fall release date. So, with the help of his girlfriend, Ingram drafted his own motion for early release, pointing to his health conditions as a reason he’s at higher risk. In his motion filed in April, Ingram wrote that he has a “heart condition” and is “borderline diabetic.”  

Ingram said he has not been tested for COVID-19, despite asking medical staff and corrections officers for one. 

“They said they’re going to do it,” Ingram said. “But then when we came and asked them about the test, they said that there’s no need for it because they only have a certain amount of tests that they could give and they’re using them at the north right now.”

The north, according to Ingram, is another part of the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, where he said officials are housing quarantined inmates who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“It kind of hurts, you know what I mean? Because you’re pretty much telling me that we’re nobody just because we’re in here,” Ingram said. 

But the situation Ingram and another inmate described for NM Political Report seems to contradict what state officials have said about testing standards and safe COVID-19 practices. 

During a press conference last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the Department of Corrections for doing what she called surveillance testing, in which asymptomatic inmates and staff are being tested at a prison in Otero County. 

“Our surveillance testing strategies and isolation strategies, just those in and of themselves, are, I think, incredibly useful in making sure that we’re protecting our inmate and corrections worker populations in the state,” Lujan Grisham said. 

Ingram said, to make matters worse, he and other inmates are not being updated by staff, even when inmates ask for more information. 

“We don’t get [any] kind of communication whatsoever,” Ingram said. “I mean, if we ask, they’ll right away say ‘Well, that’s really no concern of yours.’”

‘I might not come home’

Vincent Delara, who is housed in the same pod as Ingram, said he’s concerned that his diabetes puts him at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Delara said he was tested for COVID-19 with inconclusive results, yet he has not been retested. 

“It’s really frustrating, Delara said. “It’s just like, you see the death toll going up in New Mexico.”

Delara, like Ingram, has a list of prior offenses and also like Ingram, Delara said he has turned his life around. But what landed Delara back in prison came from a brief separation from his wife. He said while he was on probation he briefly moved out of the home he shared with her, but made sure to update his probation officer on his new temporary address. But, Delara said, when he moved back in with his wife, he failed to update his address, which led to a technical probation violation. Now he is hoping to be released this week.

“This is the shortest time I’ve done and this is the most stressful time that I’m having,” Delara said. “This is the hardest time I’ve had away from my family. Just knowing with this pandemic going on, you know, chances are if it’s true and it’s here, I might not come home.”

NM Political Report asked the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health how many COVID-19 tests administered to inmates came back as inconclusive.

Eric Harrison, a spokesman with the Department of Corrections, said that’s not something that can be easily tracked as inmates who get an inconclusive result are retested within hours. 

“Any tests that come back as inconclusive are reruned or retested immediately,” Harrison wrote in an email. “We do not leave tests inconclusive and as such, we do not track the number.”

In a later phone call, when asked about Delara’s weeks old inconclusive result, Harrison said he couldn’t speak to a specific situation without information about when he was tested, but that inconclusive results should be revisited right away. 

“More than a few days just doesn’t sit right,” Harrison said. “It doesn’t sound right.”

Harrison said detention center medical providers conduct the tests and are supposed to be retesting inmates as soon as it comes back as inconclusive. 

Last month, the state announced that roughly 25 percent of inmates would be tested and Harrison said the Department of Corrections is testing inmates when they transfer in or out of a facility and that the department is focusing on testing “hot spot locations,” which, as of early last week, Harrison said is not the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

“But we are working with the Department of Health and our medical providers in the facilities to see if we can include some high risk folks in the satellite testing,” Harrison said. “Any inmate that the medical provider may say, ‘Hey, this inmate’s possibly high-risk,’ we will be testing them as well.”

Complicating things for Ingram is his heart condition. He said a facility doctor put him on nitroglycerin for his heart condition, but that later another doctor decided to take him off the heart medication and prison staff later confiscated the rest of the medicine from Ingram. As of last week, Ingram had still not been tested for COVID-19. 

‘You’re just an inmate’

With limited access to the world outside the prison walls, even before the pandemic, inmates regularly rely on a network of rumors between each other and snippets of overheard conversations from guards for information. Ingram said even during the public health crisis, prison staff remain tight lipped about who’s getting tested, when they’re getting tested or how many positive test cases there are inside the facility.  

“They pretty much don’t tell you nothing around here,” Ingram said. “Their words exactly, [are] ‘You’re just an inmate, I don’t have to explain myself to you.’”

Delara, in a separate interview, concurred that, “They’re not really telling us anything.”

But Harrison said Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero directed detention center leadership to ramp up communications with inmates. 

“[Tafoya Lucero] has put out the directives to wardens and their leadership, that every single day they need to be walking and talking with the inmates, obviously still practicing social distancing,” Harrison said. 

But Ingram said he rarely gets information from guards, let alone prison leadership. 

“That’s most definitely not happening, man. That’s a false statement, if they ever gave one,” Ingram said, “They do a walk-through every blue moon, bro, every blue moon.”

Harrison said the department would look into making sure prison leadership has more conversations with inmates during the pandemic. 

“I know they’ve done a good job, but we can definitely reach out and make sure that’s still happening because it should be a daily thing,” Harrison said. “We know the warden can’t reach every pod in one day, but his other leadership, they have the directive to be doing that.”

Both Ingram and Delara said the anxiety that comes with knowing that COVID-19 could rapidly spread in the state prison is impacted when they hear of positive test cases from both staff and inmates through their word of mouth network. Both men live in a lower security area, where inmates are housed in a room of roughly 20 bunk beds. Each bed is about four feet from each other and there are two inmates to each bunk bed. Lower security also means inmates work jobs, usually maintaining the facility. Delara, for example, is a gym porter and he is tasked with cleaning equipment after other inmates use it. 

Ingram works as a property porter, so his work routinely involves moving office furniture. He said that earlier this month he and other inmates were tasked with moving furniture in some of the facility’s administrative offices. He said he later heard from other inmates and guards that an employee who worked in that area tested positive for COVID-19. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported last week that some prison employees who worked in the area Ingram was assigned to tested positive for COVID-19. 

Ingram knew, through the network of guards and inmates, about those positive tests before it was made public, but there was never any confirmation from leadership in the prison. 

According to both Delara and Ingram, jail officials are using a portion of the state penitentiary, referred to as “the north,” as a makeshift quarantine spot. 

Ingram said he’s seen other inmates who complain about having COVID-19 symptoms get moved to the north, but he is not sure if they are getting tested or not. He said that now he’s nervous to alert guards if he starts to experience symptoms because he thinks he’ll get moved in with other symptomatic inmates. 

“I don’t feel like I should be quarantined where it’s already at,” Ingram said. “That right there alone makes me nervous.”

It’s still unclear exactly how many inmates have been retested, but last week, Harrison said 3,144 tests have been conducted on inmates. He told NM Political Report that he would need to do more research to find out how many inmates were tested. 

As of early last week, Harrison said, there were 2,528 tests given to staff members. He said he would also have to look into a breakdown of those numbers by facility. 

Both Ingram and Delara are set to go home later this year and both men are pushing for an early release. 

Ingram is awaiting a second hearing regarding his motion for early medical release and Delara said he’s been trying to get released for good behavior, but that the date keeps getting pushed back. His latest projected release date is June 19. 

But even his pending early release does not seem to calm his anxiety surrounding COVID-19. Holding back emotions in a recent phone call with NM Political Report, he said he’s ready to leave.  

“I’m done with this life. I’m ready to go home and take care of what I need to take care of and that’s my family,” Delara said. “I got beautiful grandchildren, I got beautiful kids, a beautiful wife and I need to get back to them. I pray and wish every day, you know, that it doesn’t hit in this place and I can go home.”