July 18, 2020

Detainee at Bernalillo County youth detention center tests positive for COVID-19

U.S. Army

Bernalillo County officials confirmed Friday that a detainee in a county juvenile detention center tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to an email obtained by NM Political Report, the Bernalillo County Youth Services Center discovered the positive results on July 14. 

According to the email, which was in response to a records request from a public defender, there were no other positive cases in the county detention center. 

Jorge Estrada, a Bernalillo County spokesman, told NM Political Report that the youth who tested positive contracted the disease outside of the facility before being incarcerated. Upon arrival at the detention center on July 11, the juvenile detainee was tested and quarantined until the results came back, according to the county. 

According to Estrada, detention center staff have consistently been checking detainees’ vitals and staff are required to wear full protective wear. He said in an email that all of the roughly 20 detainees currently in the county facility tested negative as of Friday morning and that “Staff were also given the opportunity to be tested.”

In response to a question about mandatory tests, Bernalillo County spokeswoman Tia Bland said staff are not required to get tested. 

“It is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory at this time,” Bland wrote in an email. “The idea of mandatory COVID-19 testing for certain Bernalillo County employees is currently being evaluated.”

Since March, when COVID-19 was first detected in New Mexico, the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico have actively advocated for the release of nonviolent offenders from jails and prisons in an attempt to lower population numbers as a way to limit the spread of the disease. 

Jason Rael, the public defender’s managing attorney for juvenile cases, said he was not personally aware of the positive test case until NM Political Report contacted the public defender’s office.  

“I think that our attorneys should be notified immediately,” Rael said. 

Rael added that while he understands that social distancing can help slow the spread of COVID-19, isolation can be harmful for juvenile detainees. 

“I agree with those actions, as far as the way they help prevent the spread of COVID amongst the inmates,” Rael said. “The problem is that, in this case, in this situation, when you’re dealing with children, the remedial efforts can be damaging also.”

Rael said the very act of being incarcerated can be detrimental to a child’s development, especially when they are isolated. 

“You look at a facility that’s supposed to have 71 people in it and it has 17, then we’re talking about intense isolation of juveniles,” Rael said. 

Rael said one way to lower populations and avoid isolation is for judges and prosecutors to work towards not sending some juveniles to a detention center at all. 

“Now, I understand the safety of the community is also very important,” Rael said. “And that’s a factor of course in this, but with COVID now showing its face in the youth detention centers

and the numbers rising across the state, that has to play a bigger role in a judge making a decision whether or not to incarcerate a youth prior to trial.”

It’s unclear what the youth was incarcerated for.