Santa Fe County officials are awaiting the results of the first COVID-19 test conducted in their jail.
Authorities arrested a man in Albuquerque over the weekend who was wanted on a U.S. Marshals Service warrant, Santa Fe Warden Derek Williams said in an interview. The man had been in California and, under a contract the county has, he was booked into the jail about 15 miles from the capitol.
Not long after his arrival, the man showed signs of a possible COVID-19 infection, the warden said. He was immediately moved into what jail officials are calling the “quarantine pod” — an area inside the jail with a dozen cells designated for anyone with symptoms of the virus.
State Health Department staff tested the man Monday morning at the jail, Williams said, and officials were awaiting the results Tuesday afternoon.
Jail officials have designated a separate area of the jail as the “intake pod,” he said in the interview. That’s where all newly arriving inmates will spend their first 14 days in the lockup. There, authorities will monitor them for coronavirus symptoms. Those who appear sick will be moved to the quarantine pod.
Williams said the intake pod can hold up to 96 inmates; about 20 people are booked into the jail every 24 hours, with roughly half of those entering the general population before their release. The jail’s total capacity is about 600.
Like the state prison system, Santa Fe County has suspended in-person visits to the jail through April.
It’s not a perfect system, Williams said, acknowledging that the situation with the virus is changing nearly every hour.
“I am confident with it for now,” he said. “We really have some good support and partnership from the judges and the DAs and the public defenders. We have some really good, well played-out plans of action, and I feel really good about it. I think we have some good safeguards in place.”
At Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center, the state’s largest county jail, officials have received a negative result for the first of their inmates tested for COVID-19. The inmate appeared sick and was sent to an area hospital, where doctors decided to conduct a test for the virus.
The inmate was sent back to the jail after the result came back negative, county spokesman Larry Gallegos said, adding that the jail continues to “screen” — but not test — all inmates for risk factors and symptoms.
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has joined the public defenders office in asking the state Supreme Court to release some people accused of nonviolent offenses from jail — and to delay trials and cancel hearings in a host of cases.
Richard Pugh, the association’s president, sent a letter to justices on Monday saying “the population we serve are the most at risk because of their poverty and medical frailty, and if we don’t act to protect them, they and the rest of the community will be at increased risk.”
The association also is calling for a moratorium on arrests and detentions for people suspected of non-violent offenses, failure to pay fines and fees, minor probation and parole violations and “other alleged violations which do not threaten public safety.”
Some prosecutors around the state have signaled that they agree with some of what the defense attorneys have requested — namely a blanket continuance for criminal and civil cases, especially jury trial settings.
The Supreme Court has taken some steps, including on Tuesday when the justices suspended jury trials in criminal cases. (They had previously taken that action for civil cases.)
But it does not appear ready for the more drastic actions defense attorneys are seeking.
Courthouses around the state remain open, although the justices have limited the number of people in courtrooms, hallways and other locations to 25. Judges are allowing video and telephonic hearings and conferences when possible, too.
“Especially during a public health emergency, courts must not close because they deliver vital services required in our justice system to ensure community safety,” state Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said in a prepared statement.
The defense lawyers raised another concern — about public perception — in their letter to the Supreme Court.
“The current discussion is primarily focused on minimizing spread of the disease among court workers and criminal justice staff,” Pugh’s letter says. “Little is being said to address the rights of defendants waiting for their day in court.”
The longtime public defender also hinted that the narrative coming out of some of the state’s jails and prisons could create unsafe conditions beyond a possible spread of the virus.
“We have an additional concern that jails are misinforming the public about implementing testing for Covid-19,” he wrote. “Recent press releases from our county facilities imply stringent testing for the virus is taking place. This simply is not true. Those who are arrested, or who are currently incarcerated know that Covid-19 testing is not happening within the jails or upon arrest. Without overt action taken to reassure the incarcerated population NMCDLA is concerned about the possibility of social unrest in our jails such as recently seen in Italy.”
New Mexico In Depth co-published this article with our partner, the Santa Fe Reporter.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with remarks from New Mexico Chief Justice Judith Nakamura