Navajo Nation president expresses concern over county jail conditions

While New Mexico grapples with a delayed roll-out of reopening businesses and cancelled public events, some detention centers are grappling with increasing numbers of COVID-19. 

A privately run prison in Otero County, which houses both state and federal detainees, has seen a dramatic increase in cases of the disease. 

But now a county jail in northern New Mexico with hundreds of reported cases since March has caught the attention of at least one tribal leader. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to San Juan County leaders last week calling for an investigation into how the county jail is run and what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A portion of the Navajo Nation is in San Juan County and, like the county jail, has seen a high number of positive cases. In his letter, Nez cited a phone call from someone whose relative is in the San Juan County Adult Detention Center (SJCADC). The caller, Nez wrote, said the jail is lacking adequate ventilation, no separation of infected inmates, no laundry service and little to no sanitation efforts by jail officials. 

“How is SJCADC providing for the respect and dignity of the Detainees with a safe and secure environment that is maintained for operational readiness?” Nez asked in the letter. 

He went on to say that he would like to see county officials look into the conditions at the jail. 

“An investigation into the SJCADC operations and more specifically during these times of unprecedented crisis is requested, along with remedies for accountability and responsibility to do the right thing,” he wrote. 

The Navajo Nation did not respond to interview requests. In response, Chairman of the San Juan County Commission Jack Fortner wrote a letter disputing the allegation that inmates are subjected to sub-par conditions. 

Fortner wrote that the jail accepted an offer from the New Mexico Department of Health to provide guidance from Infectious Disease Bureau Medical Director Dr. Aja Sanzone.

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