Massive COVID-19 outbreak at a southern NM prison hits just one type of inmates — sex offenders. That’s by design.

As the coronavirus established a foothold in southern New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility in mid-May, state officials quietly moved 39 inmates out of the massive complex near the Texas border to another prison near Santa Fe. The inmates shared something in common: None was a sex offender. In the days before the 39 departed the massive correctiional complex where New Mexico’s only sex offender treatment program is housed, officials were still transferring sex offenders from other state prisons into Otero. It was a routine practice they had yet to stop, even though more than a dozen COVID-19 cases had already emerged elsewhere in the prison. 

Six weeks later, 434 inmates — or 80% — have the virus, within a prison population that’s now entirely composed of people who, at one time or another, were convicted of a state sex offense. Three have died.

Accounts from inmates on COVID-19 response from officials’

Stanley Igram says he’s turned his life around in prison. Speaking with NM Political Report by phone last week from the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, Ingram talked about his plans after his release, scheduled for later this year. 

“I’m gonna have to be in Tucumcari for a little bit, but my plan is to follow my career, man,” Ingram said. “I mean I got a degree in wind energy and you know, there’s things I can do.”

Ingram, who’s from Tucumcari, has a long list of priors, but he said it was his drug addiction that led to his downfall. He said it was inside the detention center walls where he found religion, began leading a “black awareness” group and got his degree. But amid a COVID-19 pandemic, Ingram said he’s getting increasingly nervous about each day he stays in prison, awaiting his fall release date.

One in nearly four-thousand: NM prison COVID-19 testing shows strikingly low positive rate

New Mexico appears to have bucked another national trend. Just one of the nearly 4,000 inmates and staff tested in the state’s 11 prisons is positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to results released by the state Corrections Department on Friday. The lone positive result, according to a news release from department spokesman Eric Harrison, was for a correctional officer at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, near the U.S. border with Mexico. The officer is now in self-quarantine at home, Harrison’s release said. Across the nation, prisons and jails have emerged as hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated populations and those who work to supervise them testing positive at alarmingly high rates in some places. 

Many inmates suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the often fatal consequences of COVID-19, leaving prisons with some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. as the pandemic continues its march.

ACLU, public defender’s office calls on NM to release more inmates amid COVID-19

New Mexico’s Law Offices of the Public Defender and the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court, asking the high court to order the mass release of inmates as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19 in state jails. 

“People in congregate environments (where people live, eat, and sleep in close proximity) like prisons and jails face increased danger of contracting COVID-19, as already evidenced by the rapid spread of the virus on cruise ships and in nursing homes,” the petition read. “For example, New Mexico’s major outbreak events have thus far been in long-term care facilities.”

The petition is the latest of attempts by both groups to lower detention center populations. 

The two groups are asking the state’s high court to order the governor and the state’s Corrections Department to “Immediately review all corrections inmates” and work to quickly release those who are incarcerated for probation or parole violations, inmates who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, those who have a year or less left on their sentence, non-violent offenders and pregnant inmates. 

The two groups are also asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to implore the state to stop jailing people for technical probation or parole violations, identify those who are eligible for gereatric or medical parole and to hold expedited parole hearings.  

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Last month Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham began ordering the release of some inmates in state facilities, but the LOPD and the New Mexico ACLU argued that those releases will not fully address the problem. 

“However, that order describes a very narrow class of inmates, and in the short-term (when NM will experience a peak in the stress in health care infrastructure) will reduce the prison populations by only about ten inmates statewide,” the petition read. 

The two groups argued in their petition that “Many inmates live in dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, sleeping in beds close together,” making it hard for inmates to practice social-distancing. 

“Put simply, inmates do not have the privilege of protecting themselves from infection,” the petition read. “New Mexico prisons lack adequate infrastructure to address the spread of infectious disease and the treatment of people most vulnerable to illness.”

Since New Mexico first reported positive COVID-19 tests, many criminal justice stakeholders have been pushing for limited in-person court proceedings and a reduction of inmates in both state and county detention centers.

Attorney alleges ‘deliberate indifference’ to COVID-19 in NM prisons, threatens legal action

A group of more than two dozen New Mexico prison inmates, many with compromised immune systems, are considering legal claims against the state Corrections Department for its “gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the dangers of COVID-19,” according to documents obtained by SFR and New Mexico In Depth. As the rest of New Mexico remains under an order against gatherings of over 50 people and pleas from officials to practice social distancing, the state’s prison system has not tested any of the thousands of inmates locked up or the corrections officers guarding them. And there do not appear to be contingency plans in place should an outbreak occur. Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in civil rights, visited clients at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on March 9, he wrote in a notice sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and corrections officials four days later. An officer told him the minimum-security lockup “was taking no precautions against coronavirus.”

“It was indicated that it was not a serious threat and there was nothing to worry about,” Collins wrote in the notice.

Guv’s pick for corrections secretary backs out of job

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the hunt for a new corrections secretary after Julie Jones — the former Florida prison system leader the governor had tapped for the position at the end of January — announced Tuesday she’s no longer able to take the job. “It’s with a heavy heart that I decline my appointment as the Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Corrections,” Jones wrote in a letter she submitted to the Governor’s Office on Tuesday. “As you know,” the letter continued, “I had scheduled time off prior to starting my tenure as Secretary. Since my return, there have been several unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico. You have a bold vision for your state and I truly regret not being a part of your team.”

State lacks policy allowing inmates to breastfeed their children

The New Mexico Department of Corrections does not have a current policy that would allow inmates to breastfeed their children, despite a judge’s order last year to put one in place. While Corrections implemented a lactation policy, it only covers access to electric breastfeeding pumps, a department spokesman told NM Political Report. Despite the order, the spokesman said in-person breastfeeding only applied to one woman. Last June, inmate Monique Hidalgo sued the Corrections Department to be able to use an electric breast pump and breastfeed her then-newborn daughter, Isabella, in-person. The injunctive order handed down last August by state District Court Judge David K. Thomson ordered the department to allow inmates to breastfeed their children.

Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission

Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement reform fails in committee

A House committee voted down legislation aimed at limiting isolated confinement in jails on Friday afternoon. The legislation failed to pass on a 6 to 5 vote, on party-lines with Republicans opposing the legislation. The bill’s sponsor Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and his two expert witnesses told committee members that prisoner isolation does more harm than good. One of his witnesses was civil rights lawyer Matthew Coyte. Coyte has won numerous cases against correctional facilities across the state where inmates were exposed to inhumane conditions.