July 3, 2020

State not releasing COVID-19 numbers for county jails

As COVID-19 numbers continue to rise within state-run detention centers across New Mexico, namely in Otero County, the numbers for county jails often go overlooked by the general public. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office reports the number of positive cases within state and federal detention centers daily. Her office also includes the number of congregate care facilities that have seen positive tests in the last 28 days. But those daily reports do not include any information on the roughly half a dozen county jails around the state. 

According to the state Department of Health, those numbers are purposefully left out of daily reports because state officials think they would add more confusion than clarification. 

During a news conference on Wednesday, NM Political Report asked Lujan Grisham why the state was not releasing COVID-19 numbers for county detention centers. She said even though the state is collecting those numbers they are not released in daily updates from her office. Without clarifying the reason for not including those numbers in the updates, she said the data is there. 

“We know by zip code, we know by, often, occupation, we know by correctional facility, we know whether it’s staff or it’s an inmate, whether in a nursing home, whether it’s staff or a resident, we are and we continue to refine getting the data,” Lujan Grisham said. 

Immediately after the news conference, NM Political Report requested that data from Lujan Grisham’s office, but was told by a DOH spokesman that any request for county detention center data would need to be requested from the counties themselves. 

David Morgan, a spokesman for DOH, said the information would have to come from the counties that oversee each regional detention center and would likely require an official records request pursuant to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).

“As this is a county-level question, I encourage you to contact the individual counties for their information,” Morgan wrote in an email. “Regardless of which counties you reach out to, this data may require filing an IPRA request, as will be the case for our agency.”

Included in the response from Morgan were emails from two of the governor’s communications staff discussing with each other whether or not the state can release those numbers. 

Director of Communications Tripp Stelnicki acknowledged that the governor said the data was available but speculated that NM Political Report would probably have to get the data from individual counties and that it would probably require an official IPRA request.

“Although [Lujan Grisham] did say this I would think we should try to get [NM Political Report] to ask the counties themselves first… but probably an IPRA, no?” Stelnicki asked. 

Deputy Director of Communications Nora Meyers Sackett responded, saying individual counties would likely require an official records request, but that the DOH also had the data. 

“The counties usually don’t tell and make them IPRA,” Sackett Meyers said. “I know DOH doesn’t want to ID county detention centers independently in the daily update but DOH has this info.​”

In response to NM Political Report pointing out the governor said the data was readily available, Morgan said it would require a records request. State law requires public agencies to fulfill information requests as soon as possible but within 15 days, with some exceptions. But since COVID-19 was first reported in New Mexico, many state and local agencies have often extended the deadline, citing a lack of resources. 

In a later email, Morgan said trying to disseminate testing data from rapidly changing populations in county jails may cause more harm than good to the public.  

“The state provides what it can accurately provide every day,” Morgan said. “Certainly we’d love to provide as much daily data as we could.”

Generally, county jails house inmates who have not been adjudicated and many of them are there for a few days. Morgan said those ever-changing populations can prove difficult to report and explain. 

“That’s a lot to sort out every day and we feel it would create more confusion than resolution,” he said. 

NM Political Report obtained COVID-19 data for county jails from the New Mexico Association of Counties. 

Grace Phillips, legal counsel for the association said the numbers she compiled came from the counties themselves, but that there’s no guarantee that those numbers originally came from DOH or if they came from private testing laboratories.

“My numbers are hopefully accurate but they are third-hand at best,” Phillips said. 

Jennifer Burrill, a public defender in Santa Fe, said the transitory nature of county jails is one reason why state officials should be releasing COVID-19 in a timely manner.

“We need to remember that [inmates] have families in the community,” Burrill said. “Almost all of them will return to our communities at some point, and especially for county jails.”

Morgan said the DOH counts county jail COVID-19 cases as part of the respective county as a whole because inmates often leave the jail, either through a transfer or release, more rapidly than in state or federal detention centers. 

But, he said, it may be worth considering releasing those numbers.  

“Now, separating out these specific numbers for a daily report is something we should talk about internally given media interest, but that is our reasoning, and that is why we prefer county detention numbers be subject to an IPRA,” Morgan said. “Yes, it’s only a snapshot in time when you receive it, but you can be certain it’s an accurate one.”

But Burrill said COVID-19 data received through an official records request is not accurate if it’s not up to date.

Burrill is no stranger to IPRA either. Lawyers often file records requests as part of the discovery process. Burrill said a two week waiting period, or longer, renders out of date information.

“By the time you get that information, that’s going to be drastically outdated in terms of how we should be changing behavior or addressing a situation, so it’s critical that this information be public,” she said. 

According to data provided by the Association of Counties, as of last week, the San Juan County jail has had both the highest number of tests and the highest number of positive cases. San Juan County includes a portion of the Navajo Nation, which has been hit hard by COVID-19. 

Below is the data provided by the Association of Counties, although it should be noted that the numbers are cumulative and do not necessarily reflect numbers for the current population.