Facing removal from office, criminal charges, Otero County certifies election results

A controversy over certifying election results in Otero County that made national headlines ended quietly on Friday with a 2-1 vote in favor of certifying the results. 

Facing possible criminal charges and removal from office, Otero County Commissioners Gerald Matherly and Vickie Marquardt voted to certify the county’s primary election results, while Commissioner Couy Griffin stayed true to his word and voted against certification. All are Republicans. Griffin, who hours before, was sentenced by a federal judge for being in an unauthorized area during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, said his reason for voting against the certification wasn’t “based on any evidence,” but instead his intuition. 

“It’s only based on my gut, my gut feeling, and my own intuition and that’s all I need to base my vote on the elections right there,” Griffin said. 

A breath later, Griffin criticized “the media” for ignoring facts that he said the commission had found that allegedly show state elections are fraudulent. 

“I still believe that our elections are fraudulent,” Griffin said. “I believe that we already have enough evidence to prove, to substantiate what the media keeps calling unsubstantiated.

Bill to end new contracts on private prisons passes House committee

A bill to impose a moratorium on new contracts for private prison facilities passed the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee 3 to 2. Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and a co-sponsor of HB 352, described it as “a newer version” of HB 40, which stalled at the House Appropriations and Finance Committee earlier this session. HB 352 would create a task force made up of 17 stakeholders, including the state Department of Corrections and other agency representatives, to analyze phasing out private prisons. HB 40 would have ended private prisons within 3 to 5 years in New Mexico. HB 352 is a more “narrow” approach, advocates said.

Prison chief: New Mexico unready to close private facilities

New Mexico’s top prison official said the state could eventually end its practice of contracting with private, for-profit firms to operate four of its 11 detention facilities, but the change won’t come anytime soon. The comments Friday by Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero followed an executive order earlier this week by President Joe Biden, who said the U.S. Department of Justice must end its reliance on private operators for federal prisons. Tafoya Lucero said she’s not philosophically opposed to the idea of getting rid of privately run prisons — but she doesn’t favor the state taking such action now. 

“Conceptually, the existence of a for profit-entity that is utilized for incarceration is definitely something we are moving away from, that we desire to move away from,” she said in an interview Friday. “The point I really want to make is when it’s possible to do it, we should do it. But we can’t be put in a situation where we have to do it overnight.” 

She said she couldn’t give a specific time frame for when it might be reasonable for the state to phase out privately run facilities. 

“A lot of it comes down to what the budget is and being able to forecast what our resources in the state look like in the years to come,” she said. 

Tafoya Lucero, who worked in the state prison system for 18 years before being appointed Cabinet secretary in 2019, told lawmakers on the New Mexico House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday she opposes a bill that would outlaw privately operated state prisons. 

House Bill 40 would allow existing contracts to expire but prohibit renewals, which she said would result in a loss of 3,000 inmate beds.

During pandemic, a privately run detention center sought to find new migrants to detain

A private detention center in southern New Mexico sought to increase the numbers of detainees within its facility after the state declared a public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. Management and Training Company (MTC), which operates the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), sent a letter to Otero County Manager Pam Heltner dated March 31. The letter stated that due to an anticipated “significant decrease,” in migrant detainees, the company would terminate its agreement—but offered a solution. NM Political Report received the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. The letter stated:

“MTC would be happy to explore with you the possibility of partnering with other state or federal agencies to co-locate detainees or inmates at the OCPC in order to increase the overall population at the facility and make MTC’s continued operation of the facility financially viable.”

MTC houses migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

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.

For third day in a row, four NM counties see double digit rise in cases

For the third day in a row, New Mexico saw more than 200 new cases of COVID-19, with double digit new cases also for the third day in a row coming from four counties: Bernalillo, McKinley, San Juan and Doña Ana. The New Mexico Department of Health announced 209 additional cases and two additional deaths related to COVID-19. The state tested 2,321 individuals Saturday. The total number of deaths reached 491 while the total number of test positive cases reached 11,619. These numbers come on a day in which national news media report that cases across the U.S. are on the rise and more than 2.5 million Americans have been infected by the disease. 

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase has said that the state would like to test around 5,000 a day.

172 new cases of COVID-19, including 64 at Otero County Prison Facility

On Saturday, the state Department of Health announced 172 additional cases of COVID-19, including another 64 cases from the Otero County Prison Facility, which is privately run and the site of a major outbreak in southern New Mexico. In addition to the 172 cases, the state announced two additional deaths related to the disease. The 64 cases, among those held by both state and federal agencies, means that 792 of the state’s 10,430 confirmed cases have come from the facility and the nearby Otero County Processing Center—7.6 percent of all confirmed cases in the state. The two newly announced deaths both were among residents from McKinley County, a female in her 60s and a male in his 50s. Both were hospitalized and had underlying conditions, though the state did not disclose which underlying conditions either had.

DOH: 132 new cases of COVID-19, including more in Otero County Prison Facility

The state Department of Health announced 132 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths related to COVID-19 on Monday. 

DOH has now found 9,845 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and reported 440 deaths related to the disease since the start of the pandemic. The new cases included 29 more cases among those held by the state Department of Corrections at the Otero County Prison Facility and 17 new cases in Hidalgo County—Hidalgo County, in the state’s bootheel along the borders with Mexico and Arizona, previously only had three confirmed cases. Hidalgo County now has the sixth-highest number of confirmed cases per capita in the state. The Otero County Prison Facility now has 570 total cases among inmates, among both those who are held by the state and by federal agencies. That is more than all but five counties.

Breweries to reopen, but governor warns COVID-19 risks remain

On Thursday, the governor called the COVID-19 news over the last week a “mixed bag,” but did announce another slight reopening of the economy, allowing breweries to reopen on a limited basis beginning on Friday. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said breweries would be able to take part in a “soft opening” on Friday, which would include outdoor and patio service, and expand to indoor service on Monday. The breweries would need to abide by COVID-safe precautions, similar to those in place for restaurants. The similarity with restaurants is one reason why the governor said breweries were free to reopen but bars would be open at a later date. Related: 121 additional cases and 10 additional related deaths due to COVID-19

No more than six people will be allowed at tables, while tables themselves will need to be distanced.

121 additional cases and 10 additional related deaths due to COVID-19

The New Mexico Department of Health announced 121 additional COVID-19 cases and ten additional related deaths Thursday. The places with double digit numbers of new cases are three counties: Bernalillo, with 31 new cases; Doña Ana, with 18 new cases and McKinley with 14 new cases plus Otero County Prison Facility, with 17 new cases of state-held inmates who tested positive for the respiratory illness. The ten additional deaths related to COVID-19 brings that total to 420 across the state. The DOH did not give details on underlying conditions but gave basic information on each case:

A male in his 60s from Doña Ana County who was hospitalized.A male in his 80s from Doña Ana County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Jim Wood Home in Hatch.A male in his 80s from McKinley County who had underlying conditions and was a patient at the Canyon Transitional Rehabilitation Center in Albuquerque.A second male in his 80s from McKinley County.A female in her 80s from San Juan County who was a resident of the Life Care Center of Farmington in Farmington.A female in her 90s from San Juan County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of Beehive Homes in Farmington.A second female in her 90s from San Juan County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of Beehive Homes in Farmington.A male in his 50s from San Juan County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 70s from San Juan County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 90s from San Juan County who had underlying conditions and was a resident of the Cedar Ridge Inn facility in Farmington. The state said through its daily announcement that some numbers previously reported that were incorrect have been corrected.