August 17, 2020

Inmates say detention center quarantine is much like solitary confinement

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

New Mexico public officials have made it clear they want anyone who has come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to get tested and self-quarantine until they get results back. Likewise, anyone who travels into the state must quarantine for 14 days or the duration of their stay. 

But in prisons, quarantining means isolation and it isn’t pleasant, according to one group of inmates. Three men who were transferred from a state prison in Grants to the penitentiary in Santa Fe told NM Political Report they were subjected to the bare minimum in terms of sleeping and hygiene provisions while they were quarantined. They claim it took them days to get basic necessities like toilet paper and were treated like animals. But the Department of Corrections disputes those claims, and said they have surveillance tapes to prove it. 

Tom Murray, who is serving out a years-long sentence for receiving a stolen vehicle and not registering as a sex offender, said he and three other inmates were transfered from the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants, to the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM) in Santa Fe on July 9. Murray said after being in the Santa Fe facility for a few days he and the other three newly transferred inmates were called to temporarily move to a high security portion of the prison. He said they were told that at some point the three men came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Because of federal laws regarding confidentiality, the Department of Health, which tracks confirmed cases, makes a point not to disclose the names of who tested positive for COVID-19. 

Murray said as the transport van pulled up to his new temporary home, he noticed none of the guards were wearing masks. He also said he raised a concern with guards about being in the general population for three days before being quarantined. 

“If any one of us had contracted the virus or come across it, this whole facility, the PNM the north and the south would have been hit,” Murray said. 

He said his concern was casually dismissed and that guards repeatedly said the group was not in trouble and that they were taking precautions. 

But Murray said once they were in quarantine the group was treated as if they actually were in trouble. He and the other three inmates were essentially put into solitary confinement. 

“From that point on, the guards would not come near us,” Murray said. “They treated us like we were the worst scum on Earth.”

He said two blankets were the extent of what guards initially gave him and that he had to repeatedly ask for toilet paper until he finally got some a day or two later. Plus, Murray said, he slept on a dirty mattress. 

“We were laying on filthy messy mattresses that people have defecated on and God knows what,” Murray said. 

Paul Wallace, another inmate from the transfer group, said he was diagnosed with bipolar and  schizoaffective disorders and that he went without his medications for at least part of his time in quarantine. Wallace is serving time for a felony battery charge and has about four years left on his sentence. 

“I freaked out pretty bad,” Wallace said. “I started thinking violent because they weren’t treating me right.”

Wallace said he never acted out because he didn’t want to be cited with an infraction, although he said it felt like he was already in trouble. 

“I felt like they treated me like I was in trouble. You know, like I did something wrong,” Wallace said. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Carlos Ortega, who is serving time for drug charges and possessing a firearm as a felon, said he received nothing more than a blanket, a roll of toilet paper and a toothbrush while being quarantined. Ortega said guards also told him he had done nothing wrong.

“[The] next thing we know, the deputy warden comes in and tells us that somewhere along our transport we might have come in contact with COVID and that we were going to be quarantined until our test results came back,” Ortega said. 

Ortega said visits from guards were sparse and brief. 

“Once a day they would open the top window and yell down to us, ‘Are you guys alive?’” Ortega said.

All three men told NM Political Report that when it came time to eat, guards would slide food trays with their foot to inmates.

According to the Department of Corrections’ policies and procedures, inmates in the general population should get access to a shower everyday, which Murray, Wallace and Ortega said was not the case while in quarantine. According to the Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 policy, new intakes should be immediately tested for the disease and quarantined for 14 days, which was also not the case according to the three men. 

Department of Corrections spokesman Eric Harrison said the immediate quarantine and test only became a policy on July 27, weeks after the men were isolated. 

Harrison also said the four men in question likely came into contact with COVID-19 before they got to Santa Fe.

“We had an inmate, a couple days later at Northwest, in Grants, test positive,” Harrison said. “The department conducted contact tracing; following through with who was in his pod, who may have been at rec near this individual, who had any kind of contact with him through that contact tracing, and we found that these four individuals had some form of interaction with that positive inmate.”

Harrison said that since April all inmates have been receiving at least one “hygiene pack” twice a week, which he said includes “a roll of toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, deodorant and the necessities.”

Murray said he receives a hygiene pack once a week, but while in quarantine he did not receive one at all.

Harrison said prison officials reviewed security footage and found no evidence of mistreatment and that PNM Warden Leon Martinez did not receive any verbal or written complaints about quarantine conditions from the three men.

“A quick review of the camera footage for those days, and the logs for those days show that the abuse of the food tray didn’t take place,” Harrison said. “And to date [Martinez] said he has not received a complaint in writing or verbally, regarding the lack of hygiene items. The reason that’s important is because our wardens, now during COVID, are very intentional and have specific, explicit directions to be walking and talking as often as possible, multiple days a week.”

Murray told NM Political Report he never saw the warden while he was quarantined and only saw the facility’s deputy warden the day he was sent to quarantine and then again when he was sent back to general population.  

Harrison said inmates who are quarantined are let out for a short period of time for “showers and their own hygiene purposes” but are not afforded the “yard time” inmates in restrictive housing would normally get. 

“It’s full-on quarantine until they produce the negative test,” Harrison said.

Harrison disputed the notion that he and the others were released from quarantine for a shower or any other hygiene issues. The only time he left confinement, Murray said, was to briefly grab his food tray. 

“We would come out and get our trays and then we’d have to lock back down and then when we were done with the tray, they’d pop the door, we’d go put our tray back in the middle of the floor,” Murray said. “When we left, there was a stack of trays.”

The Santa Fe penitentiary along with the facility in Grants, according to public health officials, have each reported one case of COVID-19.