The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is once again calling on state officials, namely the governor and her Department of Corrections secretary, to expand their efforts to lower prison populations in light of COVID-19. The ACLU-NM sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her legal counsel, asking the state to revisit the issue of how to lower inmate populations as a way to increase social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 within prison walls.
The letter praised Lujan Grisham for the “bold measures” she has taken to protect New Mexicans in general, but went on to invoke a quote from Nelson Mandela while encouraging the governor to consider inmates’ health.
“We ask you to apply the same strong, decisive, and forward-thinking approach to protect the lives of incarcerated New Mexicans as you have for the rest of the state,” the letter read. “After all, ‘a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones’– a notion that could not be more glaring than during this pandemic.”
The letter asks the governor to not just release inmates about 30 days before they are scheduled to leave, but to also consider early parole for some inmates and to consider releasing inmates who are serving prison sentences as a result of technical parole or probation violations.
But ACLU-NM Staff Attorney Lalita Moskowitz, who is also a cosigner of the letter, told NM Political Report that a key ask from the organization is transparency.
State health officials and the governor’s office have consistently released information about how many people in the state have tested positive for the disease among a long list of other things. But Moskowitz said the ACLU would like to see specific breakdowns regarding how many tests were performed within prisons and how many staff members tested positive.
“[Inmates’] families and the communities that are surrounding these facilities really deserve to know what’s going on there and deserve to be kept aware and not have to be wondering if there’s an outbreak we don’t know about, or if they’re testing anyone after a positive case,” Moskowitz said.
In April, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to release inmates who met certain qualifications 30 days before their scheduled release date. By May, the ACLU-NM and the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender asked the state supreme court to intervene and compel the governor’s office to broaden the scope of who can be released and when.