Inmates in Cibola County protest over COVID-19 conditions

A small group of federal detainees held a protest on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the private company which runs the facility confirmed. Amanda Gilchrist, the director of public affairs for CoreCivic, the company that oversees the western Cibola County Correctional Center, said in a statement that the group of detainees were protesting their “quarantine status” and said the protest ended without injuries. “During the incident, these detainees blocked the pod door, covered the windows and cameras, and refused to comply with verbal directives provided by facility staff,” Gilchrist said in an email. 

She added that medical staff “reviewed the individuals involved in the protest” and that guards “Successfully restored order, with no injuries occurring as a result of this incident to detainees or staff.”

In May, guards at the Torrance County Detention Facility used pepper spray to subdue detainees, Searchlight New Mexico reported. The Cibola County Correctional Center houses federal detainees, which include those detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last week, the facility saw a significant increase of COVID-19 cases.

NM Supreme Court rules state can impose fines, other punishments for businesses who violate state health orders

The New Mexico Supreme Court decided Tuesday that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office has the power to implement fines against businesses that do not follow the state’s emergency health orders. 

“The court has concluded that the Legislature has clearly given the governor that authority,” New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil said. 

Vigil added that the court will issue a written opinion “as quickly as [the court] can get it out.”

The state’s high court heard oral arguments Tuesday morning from the governor’s attorney Matthew Garcia and from Carter Harrison IV, who argued on behalf of about a dozen businesses and business owners. 

Community group calls for release of youth in state custody

Earlier this year, the Albuquerque-based community activist group, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), was in the planning stages of a juvenile justice campaign. The group’s director George Luján told NM Political Report that the planning stage quickly turned to an “emergency response campaign” to push state and local facilities to expeditiously release youth from juvenile facilities.    

“So, instead of spending six months planning a campaign, we immediately launched into a set of recommendations to release young people and ensure their safety in those facilities,” Luján said. 

SWOP has sent out numerous press releases and open letters to state officials asking them to release more youth from facilities, similar to pushes by advocates for a reduction in inmates in adult detention centers. Luján said the response from the state has been underwhelming, while the head of the Children Youth and Families Department has said they have released as many youth as they can while also considering the safety of the community. 

The issue of juvenile facilities and who should be let out is a complicated one. Community activists argue that the youth who are still in state and county facilities not only face the risk of COVID-19, but are also facing emotional damage by being separated from their families. Those community activists also argue that too much money is being spent on committing youth to state facilities and not enough is being spent on prevention. 

“We’ve had programs that have been successful,” Luján said.

The confusing path to getting out of prison early

Unless he gets an early release, Stanley Ingram is set to leave state prison in about 100 days. His parole plan, he said, includes going to live with family in Tucumcari and trying to put his Associate’s degree in wind energy technology to use. Besides his two year degree, he also earned two occupational certificates in the same field and a certificate for completing drug treatment while in prison. He said after spending years in and out of prison and struggling with substance abuse, he’s ready to leave his old life, and even his own self, behind. 

“That old Stanley’s dead and gone,” Ingram said. 

There’s little doubt that Ingram has already received second, third and fourth chances before he began his latest stint in state prison. According to court records, Ingram violated probation numerous times after he was convicted of a handful of felonies, including burglary and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. 

Ingram’s record inside prison seems to show he’s made a turn, although there is enough in his prison disciplinary record to make his attempts at early release more difficult. 

He was able to appeal most of the infractions he faced inside.

NM surpasses 19,000 total cases of COVID-19 since March

New Mexico health officials announced 266 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths from the disease on Sunday. There have now been  19,042 total cases and 614 deaths in the state. 

According to the state, as of Sunday, there were 144 people hospitalized for COVID-19 and 7,349 people have recovered from the disease. 

Bernalillo County continues to outpace other counties in the state, in both new and total cases. 

The state Department of Health announced 520,718 tests have been processed as of Sunday, an increase of 8,293 over Saturday’s announcement. The 266 confirmed cases represented 3.21 percent of the total tests processed. Here are the new cases by county:

91 new cases in Bernalillo County7 new cases in Chaves County2 new cases in Cibola County22 new cases in Curry County26 new cases in Doña Ana County4 new cases in Eddy County2 new cases in Guadalupe County18 new cases in Lea County8 new cases in Lincoln County5 new cases in Luna County14 new cases in McKinley County5 new cases in Otero County1 new case in Quay County4 new cases in Rio Arriba County2 new cases in Roosevelt County15 new cases in Sandoval County4 new cases in San Juan County2 new cases in San Miguel County15 new cases in Santa Fe County1 new case in Sierra County3 new cases in Socorro County1 new case in Taos County2 new cases in Union County12 new cases in Valencia County

Below are the the cumulative number of cases by county:

Bernalillo County: 4,405Catron County: 4Chaves County: 267Cibola County: 294Colfax County: 12Curry County: 379Doña Ana County: 1,990Eddy County: 221Grant County: 63Guadalupe County: 29Harding County: 1Hidalgo County: 85Lea County: 523Lincoln County: 75Los Alamos County: 16Luna County: 190McKinley County: 3,909Mora County: 6Otero County: 147Quay County: 31Rio Arriba County: 275Roosevelt County: 110Sandoval County: 1,009San Juan County: 2,915San Miguel County: 39Santa Fe County: 497Sierra County: 26Socorro County: 71Taos County: 84Torrance County: 52Union County: 23Valencia County: 313

Nearly 60 percent of the newly reported deaths occurred in McKinley County, according to state officials. In all but one of the reported deaths, individuals reportedly has an underlying condition, but state health officials did not disclose what those conditions were. 

A female in her 60s from Bernalillo County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. A male in his 30s from McKinley County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. A male in his 50s from McKinley County who was hospitalized.A female in her 60s from McKinley County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. A female in her 90s from McKinley County who had underlying conditions. A male in his 30s from Rio Arriba County who had underlying conditions. A female in her 80s from Valencia County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. 

There are currently four detention centers which house federal detainees that have reported positive cases.

Libertartian candidate files suit against NM Secretary of State Toulouse Oliver

A New Mexico Libertarian candidate for the state court of appeals is suing New Mexico’s secretary of state in federal court, claiming his and Libertarian voters’ civil rights were violated in the process of tabulating votes from the state’s primary election. 

That candidate, Stephen Curtis, is representing himself as well as the state’s Libertarian Party, the party’s state chairman and a registered Libertarian voter, who is also running for a state House position. 

The lawsuit against New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver claims that Curtis, who was a write-in candidate, received “well above the 230-vote threshold” to move on to the state’s general election. Even though Curtis did not face a primary opponent, state law requires write-in candidates to receive a certain number of votes to be placed on the general election ballot. 

The lawsuit names Curtis, the state Libertarian Party, Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Lucini as well as Ranota Banks, a Libertarian voter and Libertarian candidate for House District 15, as plaintiffs. The suit asks a federal judge to stop enforcement of a state provision requiring payment for a recount and to force a recount. 

“[Toulouse Oliver] abused the authority of her office and, while acting under color of law and with knowledge of Plaintiffs’ established rights, used her office to violate Plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws,” Curtis wrote. 

The suit argues that in one county alone, Curtis received enough votes to qualify him for the general election. 

“There is significant and substantial evidence that write-in votes for Mr. Curtis were not correctly tallied,” Curtis wrote. “For example, a Bernalillo County website reflects that 270 write-in votes were case [sic] in the Libertarian Party Primary for Court of Appeals.”

The suit also challenges a state provision that requires candidates who request a recount to cover the cost though cash or a bond. In Curtis’ case, he said he was asked to pay more than $3 million to conduct a recount. 

“The burden in question to post a multi-million-dollar bond or cash, to obtain a recount to vindicate the candidate’s and voters’ interests, particularly with substantial evidence of error, imposes a severe burden on the Plaintiffs’ associational interests, and the rights of voters to cast ballots,” Curtis wrote. 

The suit also accuses Toulouse Oliver and her office of deliberately ignoring voting total inconsistencies and voting machine errors, therefore violating the rights of voters. 

“[Toulouse Oliver’s] actions have deprived the voters for Mr. Curtis of their right to vote, despite knowledge of voting machine errors that were not counting votes, and in violation of equal protection of law,” Curtis wrote. 

Curtis was 26 votes short of moving on to the general election, according to Curtis’s suit. 

There are two candidates currently qualified for the respective court of appeals spot in the general election: Republican Gertrude Lee and incumbent Democratic candidate Shammara Henderson, who was appointed this year to fill the vacancy of retired judge Moncia Zamora.

New group of petitioners challenging NM DOH medical cannabis rules

The list of medical cannabis companies filing legal complaints against the New Mexico Department of Health continues to grow. 

This week, two more medical cannabis producers, a cannabis manufacturer, a cannabis testing laboratory and a patient licensed to grow medical cannabis filed petitions in state district court asking a judge to annul rules adopted by the DOH earlier this month. That’s in addition to the two other medical cannabis producers who filed petitions against the state last week. 

Also notable is the list of attorneys representing the medical cannabis companies, as it includes two current legislators, a former commissioner with the state’s Public Regulation Commission, a former attorney general candidate and a former congressional candidate, all from across the state’s political spectrum. 

Medical cannabis producer Ultra Health was the first company to file a petition last week and is represented in part by Brian Egolf, a Democrat who also serves as the state’s Speaker of the House. On Tuesday, former PRC commissioner Jason Marks, also a Democrat, filed a separate petition on behalf of his clients, Scepter Lab, one of two testing laboratories in the state, and medical cannabis manufacturer Vitality Extracts. 

Then on Thursday, Jacob Candelaria, who serves as a Democratic state senator, filed a petition on behalf of medical cannabis producer and manufacturer G&G Genetics. Also joining the initial case on Thursday was medical cannabis patient and licensed cannabis grower Heath Grider, represented by former Libertarian attorney general candidate Blair Dunn and Jared Vander Dussen, who recently lost in a three-way primary for the Republican nomination in New Mexico’s First Congressional District. 

All of the petitioners are asking for generally the same thing: for a judge to invalidate rules recently promulgated by the Department of Health, which oversees the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. 

The new petitioners, like the initial petitioners, argue that many of the new rules regarding cannabis testing, labeling and growing are “arbitrary and capricious.”

But the new petitioners are also adding to the list of concerns.  

Increased testing, increased prices

Marks, who is representing Scepter Lab and Vitality Extracts in a case of their own, argued in his petition that the department’s new testing standards are not based on actual data or research, but instead based on language borrowed from other states — particularly states with less arid climates that New Mexico. 

One of the new rules is that medical cannabis must be tested for mycotoxins or naturally occurring toxic substances that come from certain types of fungi. 

Marks argued that out of more than 15,000 tests conducted in New Mexico since the rule was implemented, none came back positive for mycotoxins. 

He added that tests for mycotoxin testing on a national level produced a relatively small amount of positives but that those results were likely from “climates more likely to lead to mycotoxin production than New Mexico’s.”

Marks also argued that testing standards for heavy metals and pesticides were not based on true research. Heavy metals, Marks wrote, are only introduced through soil and water and that testing water systems and soil used to grow medical cannabis would be the better way to detect heavy metals.

Poll shows majority of Latino parents concerned about distance learning

A majority of Latino parents in New Mexico are concerned their children will fall behind in their education because of extended time away from school and increased online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to newly released survey data. 

The survey was conducted by Latino Decisions, a national polling and research group, and commissioned by a coalition of New Mexico advocacy groups. 

According to the survey, 81 percent of primary caregivers who were polled said they were concerned about their children’s time away from an actual classroom. The survey also showed that 48 percent of Latino families in New Mexico think that help from the state with online education is the most important issue, while 36 percent of those who were surveyed said the most important issue was getting more information about how school will proceed in several weeks. 

Dr. Gabriel Sanchez with Latino Decisions said during a news conference that one of the takeaways from the survey is that many families that were struggling to get by prior to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing more challenges in order to keep their children engaged in school. 

“For these families, especially thinking about a hybrid model or having to go fully online again in the fall, that time gap from being able to be equipped with the tools to be able to keep up with the education is just going to make those underlying inequalities much greater,” Sanchez said. 

The survey also showed that 28 percent of the families said they only have internet access through a mobile phone and 21 percent said they do not have any access to the internet. 

Sanchez said there are several possible solutions to keep kids on track in their education, but that technical steps like increasing wireless internet access spots across the state and creating distance learning methods not reliant on the internet need to happen soon. 

“I think we have a bit of time, but that time is shrinking, to be able to make some aggressive steps to ensure that all children, not just those that have access to high speed internet, are able to continue with their education,” Sanchez said. 

Johana Bencomo, a Las Cruces city councilor and the director of faith-based advocacy group 

New Mexico CAFé, said keeping primarily Spanish speaking families updated can help ease anxiety or confusion about what’s expected of parents and students. 

“For [CAFé], the thing that’s most important is, and we’ve been doing this with a lot of our partners statewide since this pandemic began, it’s just really bridging the communication gap and ensuring that our families have good information and relevant information in Spanish,” Bencomo said. 

Javier Martínez, the executive director of Partnership for Community Action and a New Mexico state representative, said complicating the issue is the fact that many immigrant families do not qualify for federal or state financial assistance and cannot find jobs that allow them to work from home. 

“Those folks, in many cases, absolutely have to leave the house to go work in whatever trade they’re in, and that’s a complicating factor,” Martínez said. “So we are working actively with the state to identify some sort of program to help support those families.”

Martínez said his group asked Albuquerque Public Schools to create a technical assistance process to at least partially remove the burden from individual teachers. 

“One of the things we saw between the end of March and the end of May, was that you had teachers pulling triple duty, sometimes teaching, [and also doing] social work and technical assistance for families to use that technology, and that’s unfair,” Martínez said. “It’s unfair for the teachers and for the student and is unfair for the family.”

The survey results come weeks before New Mexico schools are set to start. The state’s Public Education Department has largely left specifics of how the year will go up to individual districts.  

Another medical cannabis company joins in legal action against the state

A second medical cannabis company has filed a petition asking a state district judge to invalidate rules recently enacted by the New Mexico Department of Health. 

Pecos Valley Production, a medical cannabis company with dispensaries in the southern part of the state, filed a petition Monday in state district court calling for an annulment of regulatory rules that lawyers for the company called “arbitrary and capricious.”

The petition from Pecos Valley argues similar points as one filed last week, on behalf of cannabis producer and manufacturer Ultra Health. Both petitions are filed under the same case. Lawyers for Ultra Health, one of which is Brian Egolf, who also serves as the state’s Speaker of the House, argued that the Medical Cannabis Program and the DOH failed to show reasoning for new rules. Ultra Health’s lawyers also accused the state of copying regulations from other states that have a medical cannabis program like Oregon and Colorado. 

The petition from Pecos Valley Production also accused the state of adopting rules from other states instead of properly consulting with medical cannabis producers in New Mexico. “These industry participants are well versed in the day-to-day operations of the New Mexico medical cannabis industry and therefore are more likely to provide relevant New Mexico specific evidence than the standards cut and pasted from other states,” the second petition reads.

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

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.