Pay up or lockup: Housing shortage kept cash-poor parolees behind bars

David, 28, was counting the days until January 6, 2012, when his prison sentence would end and he would be released on parole. He had earned his GED diploma inside and lined up some job options in construction and landscaping around Albuquerque. But the date came and went, and still the state kept him locked up. 

The problem was housing. There was only one halfway house in the state that would take an inmate like David — a convicted sex offender — and it had a long waiting list. If he wanted to get a bed there anytime soon, David would have to buy his freedom — in cash. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

Anthony puts big plans on hold during pandemic

ANTHONY, N.M. — On a spring day during the coronavirus lockdown, Fernie Herrera set up an outdoor stove in his spacious backyard. He unfurled the awning on his camper — parked under the pine tree that towers over the family house — and invited his kids and grandkids over for a campout. 

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Herrera might have been out fishing or hunting rabbits. Instead, with his daughter and her three children, he ate steak and potatoes inside the camper as if they were camping in the woods. 

“With the pine tree there, that was our forest,” he said. After his daughter left with the kids, his son’s family arrived, extending the day’s activities while being mindful of the state’s prohibitions against large gatherings. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

‘An anything-goes situation.’ Nursing homes profit from pandemic with no risk of accountability.

ALBUQUERQUE — When an ambulance dropped Lola Harding’s mother off at Canyon Transitional Rehabilitation Center, the 87-year-old was carrying an oxygen tank to help with her labored breathing. She was in the throes of COVID-19 — exhausted from the late-night coughing fits that kept her from sleeping, disoriented to the point of hallucination. At the intake desk, an employee handed her a 23-page stack of admission papers.   

On page 8, a document stated: This Agreement Waives The Right To A Trial By Jury. Without giving it a passing thought, she signed it and handed it back to the clerk. This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

The Carlsbad region was poised to send $3 billion to New Mexico coffers, thanks to one of the biggest oil booms in history. Then came COVID.

On a Thursday in late May, Michael Trujillo sat in the slightly softened evening light and watched his three children play in the water at Lake Carlsbad Beach Park, an unexpected patch of blue in the Chihuahuan desert. With his pit bull puppy at his feet, Trujillo passed slices of pizza from a stack of three Little Caesars boxes to two men in camp chairs. All three are oilfield workers, Carlsbad natives and, unlike thousands of others in the industry, all are still employed. But that hasn’t relieved their anger at the New Mexico governor and her coronavirus shutdown orders. “She needs to open the place up and let us do what we need to do,” the 36-year-old Trujillo said. 

Like a lot of people in town, Trujillo wishes Carlsbad was in Texas. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. In that state, just 40 miles to the south, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t order a COVID-19 lockdown until April 2 and allowed businesses to start reopening by May 1.

Imprisoned migrants seeking better prison conditions describe an attack by pepper- spraying guards

ESTANCIA, N.M. – The migrants were on a days-long hunger strike when guards entered their prison dormitory in full riot gear —gas masks, shields and canisters of pepper spray. The officers corralled the two dozen or so inmates into a huddled mass. Two men fell to their knees, begging them not to attack. “Suddenly, they just started gassing us,” said Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba. “You could just hear everyone screaming for help.”

At least one person collapsed.

In Gallup, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, a pandemic crosses paths with homelessness, hate and healers

GALLUP, N.M. — At the end of the Howard Johnson Hotel’s orange and white hallway, Dr. Caleb Lauber paused by a mirror as if he were lost. The mirror was an invention of the crafty security guards who’d leaned it against a chair, allowing them to quickly see around the corner in case any guests, all COVID-19 positive, should leave their rooms. Lauber worked 60, sometimes 80-hour weeks, caring for the homeless that Gallup had arranged to shelter at local hotels. He’d seen 500 of these patients in the past month. And now his memory was failing. “What’s the room number?” he asked his nursing assistant for the second time as they rounded the corner.  

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

‘When history deals a bad hand:’ Las Vegas struggles as tourism comes to a halt

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Elmo Baca has always loved historic buildings. He was born in Las Vegas, a Wild West city that’s one of the most historic in New Mexico, home to more than 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. After he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Yale University, Baca moved home for the summer, unsure what to do next. An elderly artist who lived in a restored adobe house near the city plaza changed his life with a single sentence. “This town needs you,” she told him. 

Baca listened.

Planting hope amid a plague

SHIPROCK, N.M. — Four miles down Farm Road, just off U.S. Route 491 in northern Navajo, a group of young Diné used what was left of daylight in early May to plant onions and potatoes on Yellow Wash Farm. As the novel coronavirus stretched its way through Navajoland, leaving a trail of heartbreak and uncertainty, the four Navajo men, a mixture of family and friends from Shiprock, picked up their seeds and broke the earth with their shovels. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. By month’s end, the Navajo Nation would have the highest per-capita infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York state. The outbreak cut a swath across the vast reservation, from outposts in Arizona to the mesas and high desert in northwest New Mexico, where Shiprock, or Naatʼáanii Nééz — the largest Navajo community — became a hotspot seemingly overnight.

‘We’re sitting ducks.’ As coronavirus swept through a halfway house, state officials reported nothing.

ALBUQUERQUE — At least 25 residents of one of New Mexico’s largest halfway houses have tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak happened at Diersen Charities in Albuquerque, which houses inmates on their way out of the federal prison system and some who are on federal probation. The facility has enough beds to accommodate more than 100 men and women. “We’re sitting ducks,” said one resident, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. He described a living situation not unlike a prison, with dozens of metal-frame bunk beds stacked a few feet apart.

As COVID-19 sweeps through the Navajo Nation, a hospital is accused of endangering lives

GALLUP – In the past two weeks, one COVID-19 patient died following what several staff physicians described as gross mismanagement by health care workers at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital. Another patient suffered severe brain damage when a ventilator was improperly adjusted, according to those same physicians. And the hospital’s critical care doctor, the only critical care physician in McKinley County, resigned, citing patient safety concerns. 

On May 5, an ad-hoc group of staff providers at the hospital, formally known as Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, unanimously voted to submit a declaration of no confidence in Rehoboth CEO David Conejo. The group, which formed this spring to protest conditions, followed up with a warning letter to the hospital board. The letter charged Conejo with creating an unsafe working environment, failing to effectively communicate, promoting a lack of transparency and poor fiscal management. 

“The board members should understand that they are ultimately responsible for breaches in their fiduciary obligations to the hospital system by allowing the CEO to create unsafe working conditions,” the health care workers wrote.  

The staff accused Gallup’s second largest hospital of questionable leadership decision-making that led to severe staff shortages, a Searchlight New Mexico investigation found.