December 27, 2020

2020 Top Stories #5: COVID-19 in prisons

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

See our entire countdown of top stories, to date, here.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the lives of almost every New Mexican, including those locked up in jail or prison. 

In April, just a month after New Mexico saw its initial cases of COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office faced a legal challenge over how the state was handling COVID-19 in detention centers across the state. A petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and compel the state to broaden its scope of how to lower inmate populations. The stance of the governor’s office was, and still is, that an executive order allowing a specific class of inmates to be released 30 days early was enough. 

The coalition that filed the petition argued that the governor’s office and the New Mexico Corrections Department were subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment by sticking with the 30-day early release order instead of pushing for expanded and expedited parole or house arrest for inmates. During oral arguments in the Supreme Court case, both the governor’s lawyer and some justices expressed concern over where inmates would go after being released. The high court ultimately ruled in favor of the state and said the governor’s office and Corrections were not “deliberately indifferent” to the health and safety of inmates. The ACLU again unsuccessfully urged Lujan Grisham to change her stance on inmate releases. 

More recently, the same group of advocates, now joined by a national legal firm, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of about a dozen inmates, against the governor and the Corrections Department. A state district judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the inmates had not gone through a formal grievance procedure. That case is pending with the state Supreme Court

While lawyers and state officials were litigating, NM Political Report spoke to a number of state inmates, namely Stanley Ingram

Ingram, like countless others, discovered first hand how complicated it can be to navigate an early release. He filed a motion with a state district court, asking for early medical release. But the judge in that case ruled that Ingram would be safer from COVID-19 in prison than he would be at home in Tucumcari. Other inmates who spoke with NM Political Report described how quarantine in prison is much like solitary confinement. And as state officials continued to insist that prison leadership was in constant communication and following strict COVID-19 precautions, stories from inside seem to paint a different picture