September 13, 2020

Judge rules inmate is safer from COVID-19 in prison than at home

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

Despite conditions that make social distancing difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, a New Mexico state district judge ruled that keeping a man in state prison would be safer than going home roughly four months early. 

District Judge Albert Mitchell ruled on Aug. 20 that despite his underlying health conditions and close living conditions in prison, Stanley Ingram would be safer in prison than at home with his girlfriend in Tucumcari. 

In the order, Mitchell acknowledged Ingram’s health conditions, including diabetes and heart arrythmias, and how those conditions have been reported to create a higher risk of experiencing severe complications from COVID-19. Still, Mitchell reasoned that since there is only one reported case in the Penitentiary of New Mexico, where Ingram is detained, and fifty cases in the county where he would live when released, Ingram is safer in prison. 

“The policies and procedures implemented at the Department of Corrections facility where Mr. Ingram is being held appear to be more effective in protecting the individuals in state custody from COVID-19 than the Governor’s orders as implemented in Quay County, New Mexico,” Mitchell wrote. 

In a phone call last week, Mitchell told NM Political Report that he cannot speak about Ingram’s case specifically because it’s still considered pending. 

Ingram could still appeal the ruling, but he said he can not afford another attorney and that the issue would likely not be settled before his pending Dec. 15 release date.  

During a call from prison, Ingram told NM Political Report he was disappointed by the ruling.  

“That’s ludicrous what he did, and it’s not right.” Ingram said. 

NM Political Report previously reported that Ingram had obtained a number of educational and drug treatment certificates while incarcerated and was initially not given credit towards early release. The New Mexico Department of Corrections finally did honor his certificates and Ingram expected to be released in November. Now, he said, the Corrections Department said he will not be released until December. But the entire time he was pushing for an early release through his earned credits, he also had a pending court case, asking the same judge that sentenced him to prison to approve his early release based on Ingram’s medical concerns. 

In April, Ingram, with the help of his girlfriend, drafted and filed a motion asking Mitchell to order an early release based on Ingram’s health concerns. In June, Mitchell asked Ingram’s public defender to provide facts about Ingram’s situation. Much of what Mitchell cited in his August order appears to have been taken from that fact finding filing. It wasn’t until August that Mitchell issued his ruling denying Ingram’s request, albeit without prejudice, which means Ingram can still file another motion asking for release. 

But Ingram said he was left with more questions than answers after reading Mitchell’s decision. 

“How in the world do you think I’m safer in here, when I’m right there by somebody? People cough, you catch it, I eat right across the table from them,” Ingram said. “We ain’t six feet apart, so what makes you think I’m safer here than being in my home?”

Ingram’s struggle to get an early release is also happening with the backdrop of a second court case asking the Department of Corrections and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office to consider broadening the scope of how prison populations are reduced amid a pandemic. 

Earlier this year, Lujan Grisham issued an executive order allowing a subset of inmates to be released 30 days early. 

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, along with the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender asked the state Supreme Court to step in and compel the state to allow expanded releases through things like early parole and allowing some inmates to finish their sentences outside of prison. The high court ultimately decided to deny the petition filed by the ACLU of New Mexico and the public defender’s office. 

One concern expressed by the governor’s lawyer, and shared by at least one justice, during that case was that some inmates may not have a place to live that is adequately safe from contracting COVID-19. 

Now the ACLU of New Mexico is trying once again to sway the Department of Corrections and Lujan Grisham to consider broadening their view of who should be released and when, this time as a class action lawsuit in district court. 

Lalita Moskowitz, a staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico, told NM Political Report that she does not think there is much merit to the argument that inmates are safer from COVID-19 inside prison than at home. 

“To the point that anybody would be safer in prison, versus at home with a family member out in the community, it just makes no sense, frankly,” Moskowitz said. “We know that there’s no possible social distancing within prisons, there’s not adequate hygiene, there’s not the ability to sort of do the protective measures that we know that folks need to do in order to prevent the spread of the virus.”

And Mitchell even acknowledged those points in his ruling denying Ingram’s release. He cited the fact that Ingram and other inmates in his unit are housed in bunk beds about four feet apart and that inmates are not required to be six feet apart when interacting with each other. 

Moskowitz said the decision to file the class action suit came from a continued need for “action on a bigger scale” to keep both inmates and the general public safe. 

Moskowitz said it’s difficult to say exactly how many judges have issued similar orders or how many inmates have been denied release on similar safety arguments, but that she has heard of numerous instances like Ingram’s. 

But she also said it is in the governor’s purview to expand the requirements for early release, even without a lawsuit.  

“The corrections department and the governor have the power to be releasing people, to be looking at this and taking proactive action, irrespective of our law students,” Moskowitz said. “So we’re still hoping that we could get them to the table to talk more about possibilities.”