July 9, 2020

ACLU again calling on Lujan Grisham to expand prison releases to slow the spread of COVID-19

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is once again calling on state officials, namely the governor and her Department of Corrections secretary, to expand their efforts to lower prison populations in light of COVID-19.

The ACLU-NM sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her legal counsel, asking the state to revisit the issue of how to lower inmate populations as a way to increase social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 within prison walls. 

The letter praised Lujan Grisham for the “bold measures” she has taken to protect New Mexicans in general, but went on to invoke a quote from Nelson Mandela while encouraging the governor to consider inmates’ health. 

“We ask you to apply the same strong, decisive, and forward-thinking approach to protect the lives of incarcerated New Mexicans as you have for the rest of the state,” the letter read. “After all, ‘a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones’– a notion that could not be more glaring than during this pandemic.”

The letter asks the governor to not just release inmates about 30 days before they are scheduled to leave, but to also consider early parole for some inmates and to consider releasing inmates who are serving prison sentences as a result of technical parole or probation violations. 

But ACLU-NM Staff Attorney Lalita Moskowitz, who is also a cosigner of the letter, told NM Political Report that a key ask from the organization is transparency. 

State health officials and the governor’s office have consistently released information about how many people in the state have tested positive for the disease among a long list of other things. But Moskowitz said the ACLU would like to see specific breakdowns regarding how many tests were performed within prisons and how many staff members tested positive. 

“[Inmates’] families and the communities that are surrounding these facilities really deserve to know what’s going on there and deserve to be kept aware and not have to be wondering if there’s an outbreak we don’t know about, or if they’re testing anyone after a positive case,” Moskowitz said. 

In April, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to release inmates, who meet certain qualifications, 30 days before their scheduled release date. By May, the ACLU-NM and the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender asked the state supreme court to intervene and compel the governor’s office to broaden the scope of who can be released and when. The high court rejected the ACLU and public defender’s petition to expand prison releases.

Lujan Grisham’s legal counsel argued that the state did not have enough resources to increase the number of inmates being released. 

Moskowitz said there are certain qualifications for parole, like not living with a convicted felon, but that the Corrections Department’s “hands are tied by their own rules.”

“One of the things that we suggested is that some of the rules can be relaxed or revisited,” she said. 

Moskowitz said her office had not received a response from the governor’s office or an indication that it planned to respond. 

“We very much in good faith and with the goal of working together, reached out to the governor and the Corrections Department to say, ‘Let us help you figure this out,’” Moskowitz said. “And there doesn’t seem to be any interest in looking at some of the things that we’ve proposed. And these aren’t just things that we made up one day. These are recommendations that reflect experts and advocates across the country coming together to try to figure out what to do in this context. So, it’s certainly concerning that the governor’s office and the Corrections Department don’t seem interested in using those tools or having those conversations.”

Lujan Grisham’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries from NM Political Report requesting comment on the letter. 

Both the local and national ACLU offices have long pushed for criminal justice reform aimed at, among other things, prison populations. 

Moskowitz said the COVID-19 pandemic is a missed opportunity for Lujan Grisham and her cabinet members to examine the state’s prison population in general. 

“One of the things that’s really disappointing about the state’s response here is that this pandemic could present a really interesting opportunity to look at the system and some of the things that absolutely we’ve been advocating for before this time,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to look at those and to try to address some of those issues, and there are creative solutions that could be found. We just don’t see the administration interested in looking at those creative solutions.”