Bill to end private detention facilities in the state passes House Judiciary but may face uphill battle

A lively debate in the House Judiciary Committee around a proposal for New Mexico to stop renewing contracts with private detention centers ended with one Democrat voting against the bill, along with all Republicans, but it passed 7 to 5. HB 40, the Private Detention Moratorium Act, would phase out the state’s reliance on private […]

Bill to end private detention facilities in the state passes House Judiciary but may face uphill battle

A lively debate in the House Judiciary Committee around a proposal for New Mexico to stop renewing contracts with private detention centers ended with one Democrat voting against the bill, along with all Republicans, but it passed 7 to 5.

HB 40, the Private Detention Moratorium Act, would phase out the state’s reliance on private companies to house its prison population within 3 to 5 years. New Mexico incarcerates more people per capita than any other state and, disproportionately, the people housed are Black and Latino, advocates for the bill have said.

But House Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, a Democrat from Milan and a former magistrate judge, voted against the bill. He said he used to work in the state prison system and he questioned whether people housed in public detention centers are really better off.

He said that when he worked in a state-run facility, it was built to hold 700 inmates but at the time it was holding 1,200 to 1,300 prisoners with no more than 12 correction officers supervising on Friday and Saturday nights.

“I can honestly say we don’t pay our state correctional officers; they’re paid not that great,” Alcon said. “We haven’t put any money into our Department of Corrections in the 13 years I’ve been here.”

Michael Eshleman, Otero County Attorney, said his county is in danger of defaulting on $58 million in bonds if it must end its contract with Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which runs Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral.

The bill allows current contracts with private detention centers to continue for 3 to 5 years but counties could not renew a contract under HB 40. Eshleman said Otero County’s contract with MTC ends in June 2021.

“Our sole source of bond revenue is contracts,” Eshleman said. “Without it, potentially we would have to default.”

Defaulting would mean a bad credit score for the county, Eshelman said. He said another issue is that 90 percent of Otero County land cannot be taxed because it is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense, so the loss of revenue would be a “significant blow to the county budget.”

The Torrance County Commissionpassed a resolution Wednesday morning opposing the bill, Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said.

Rubio is the lead sponsor of the bill.

But proponents of the bill said that because of lower staffing levels at private prisons, those facilities see higher rates of assault and more contraband weapons, making them less safe for both staff and the incarcerated. 

The state Department of Corrections has also spoken against the bill. A representative said during the public comment period that moving from private to public facilities takes careful planning and that the time allowance in the bill was inadequate.

Rep. Zachary Cook, a Republican from Ruidoso, offered to amend the bill which Rubio viewed as a “friendly” amendment. Rubio said she was “intrigued.”

The amendment added language about creating a fund to help both workers and the communities impacted by the closure of the private facilities. But Cook’s amendment did not include a dollar amount.

This was the second amendment added to the bill. The first one came from the sponsor and cleaned up some language within the bill.

There was some discussion at the end of the debate as to whether the bill would make it through the House Appropriation Committee, given the state’s fiscal crisis and the second amendment requesting funds to help the workers and communities affected if the bill is passed.

There are five counties – Lea, Guadalupe, Otero, Cibola and Torrance – that would be impacted, Rubio said.

Rubio said that if the Legislature passed “courageous” prison reform, the prison population would decrease. That could end the worry about the state having enough beds for its inmates if the private contracts ceased.

Rep. James Townsend, a Republican from Artesia, argued that the problems documented in the private prison system were not the fault of the companies but of the state for not writing stronger contracts and providing better oversight over the companies.

“My point is the failure lies with not demanding performance in a contract, not the contractor,” Townsend said.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, said that she, too, had worked for the Department of Corrections in the past. She said that she fundamentally believes there should be “no profit in incarcerated humans.”

But, she said that inmates’ constitutional rights were violated “across the system.”

“Sometimes on the public side, sometimes on the private side. The entire system is underfunded,” Cadena said.

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