July 7, 2020

Navajo Nation president expresses concern over county jail conditions

While New Mexico grapples with a delayed roll-out of reopening businesses and cancelled public events, some detention centers are grappling with increasing numbers of COVID-19. 

A privately run prison in Otero County, which houses both state and federal detainees, has seen a dramatic increase in cases of the disease. 

But now a county jail in northern New Mexico with hundreds of reported cases since March has caught the attention of at least one tribal leader. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to San Juan County leaders last week calling for an investigation into how the county jail is run and what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A portion of the Navajo Nation is in San Juan County and, like the county jail, has seen a high number of positive cases.

In his letter, Nez cited a phone call from someone whose relative is in the San Juan County Adult Detention Center (SJCADC). The caller, Nez wrote, said the jail is lacking adequate ventilation, no separation of infected inmates, no laundry service and little to no sanitation efforts by jail officials. 

“How is SJCADC providing for the respect and dignity of the Detainees with a safe and secure environment that is maintained for operational readiness?” Nez asked in the letter. 

He went on to say that he would like to see county officials look into the conditions at the jail. 

“An investigation into the SJCADC operations and more specifically during these times of unprecedented crisis is requested, along with remedies for accountability and responsibility to do the right thing,” he wrote. 

The Navajo Nation did not respond to interview requests.

In response, Chairman of the San Juan County Commission Jack Fortner wrote a letter disputing the allegation that inmates are subjected to sub-par conditions. 

Fortner wrote that the jail accepted an offer from the New Mexico Department of Health to provide guidance from Infectious Disease Bureau Medical Director Dr. Aja Sanzone. According to Fortner’s letter, Sanzone inspected the facility. 

“[Sanzone] approved of the COVID-19 practices put into place, but recommended using footwear coverings when going from the COVID-positive to the COVID-negative pods and switching to Styrofoam food trays for all detainee meals to reduce risk of transmission,” Fortner wrote.

He said the jail did not adopt the footwear recommendation as it turned out to be more of a hazard for staff on the “slick concrete flooring.”

In his three page letter, Fortner outlined what he said jail officials are doing to prevent the spread of the disease. He said the jail was one of the first county detention centers to test 100 percent of inmates and that all who test positive for COVID-19 are segregated from the rest of the jail population. Fortner also disputed the notion that the detention center is lacking sanitation efforts or laundry services. 

“Detainees are issued clean garment and linens,” he wrote. “All detainees have access to laundry machines and are issued laundry detergent so they can do their own laundry in addition to having it done by the facility twice per week.”

Fortner also said all inmates are provided masks and that county officials have worked with prosecutors, police and public defenders to reduce the population from 548 inmates to 314 inmates as of July 2, a 42 percent decrease.

San Juan County Manager Mike Stark told NM Political Report that he doesn’t see a need for an investigation as Nez called for. 

“Our investigation, quite frankly, was Dr. Sanzone,” Stark said. 

Stark, echoing a portion of Fortner’s letter, said he encourages Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer to tour the facility to see first hand the conditions inmates face. 

But one inmate told NM Political Report that up until last week, conditions in the San Juan facility were extremely lacking. The inmate, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from jail staff, said when he got to the facility in June there was “no social distancing at all” and that the facility lacked proper ventilation. He said conditions have improved since he and others raised concerns with staff, but that jail staff previously did not sanitize the facility effectively and that inmates were not given access to clean uniforms. 

Now, the inmate said, he was tested for COVID-19 but never given the results. 

“They transferred me into the cell where all the people who test positive for COVID-19 are, so I’m guessing I’m positive,” he said. “But they won’t tell me the results. They don’t tell anybody the results.”

According to court records, the inmate has a list of prior offenses, but he said what landed him back in jail was a warrant for his arrest after failing to appear at an April hearing related to a drunk driving charge. He said he wanted to appear telephonically, but had trouble reaching his defense attorney. He said in June, while he was experiencing homelessness, he was picked up by police on a warrant for his arrest. Now the inmate is being held on a $7,500 bond, but said he doesn’t have enough money to get out.

When asked about the current conditions inside the jail, the inmate said ventilation has improved and that the facility is now giving out soap, but that not very many people wear masks.

Despite improved conditions, the inmate wondered how much the disease might further spread because many of his cellmates, who are also being quarantined, previously worked in the kitchen.  

“Most of the staff that were in the kitchen cooking, the inmates that were cooking, most of them are in here, with COVID themselves,” the inmate said. 

According to information NM Political Report obtained from the New Mexico Association of Counties, the San Juan County jail has seen both the highest number positive cases and the highest number of tests. Between March 13 and June 23, the county detention center saw 134 positive cases out of the 978 detainees who were tested, or almost 14 percent of detainees who were tested. During that same time period, 192 jail staff were tested and of those, eight tested positive, or a 4 percent positive test rate. 

McKinley County, which also overlaps with the Navajo Nation and has seen more cases overall, experienced fewer cases in its county jail than San Juan. The McKinley County Adult Detention Center, between March 13 and June 28, saw 16 positive detainee cases out of 225 total tests, or a seven percent positive rate. According to the data from the Association of Counties, the population in the San Juan County jail decreased by about 30 percent during that same period and the McKinley County jail saw a 53 percent decrease in population.

Below is the letter Nez sent to the San Juan County Commission and the commission’s response.

Below that is population data by county detention center and the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases by county detention center below that. This data was provided by the New Mexico Association of Counties.