Failure of prison coronavirus testing in NM begs scrutiny

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Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital.

Six-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-eight people woke up Thursday morning behind bars in New Mexico’s 11 prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Just eight of them have been tested for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease, COVID-19. 

That’s a test rate of .0012%.

The state employs about 1,800 people to supervise those inmates and oversee the lockups; it has ordered tests for 33 of them. The rate: 1.8%.

Compare that to a rate of about 3% for the rest of the population. 

Important to note: Prison inmates can’t control their own contact with guards coming from the outside everyday, and have little to no control over access to health care. 

No inmates had tested positive as of Thursday afternoon, a corrections spokesman told New Mexico In Depth. And the spokesman, Eric Harrison, said Thursday that a contract nurse at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility had tested positive on April 21 — the first coronavirus case the state has confirmed in one of its prisons.

But as I’ve mentioned the staggeringly low testing numbers to civil rights and prisoners’ advocates during the past few weeks, they’ve responded with anguished sighs, angry cursing and, in a few cases, disbelief.

Five inmates and nine staff?” one hissed through the phone at me earlier this week, when the numbers were even lower. “No way that’s right.”

They’re concerned about the possibility of an outbreak in the kind of confined space that all prisons, by definition, represent — particularly because many of those incarcerated have underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to potentially fatal cases of the virus.

And with good reason.

Prisons and jails around the nation have exploded into hotspots of COVID-19 infection, even driving overall case numbers significantly higher in some states. And a disturbing pattern is beginning to emerge, identifying two types of American prison systems: those with lots of identified virus and those that don’t test. (More on that in a bit.)

I’ve been pushing for an interview with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about the potential tinderbox the prisons represent since the week New Mexico saw its first coronavirus cases in March. So far, that hasn’t happened, and the first-term, Democratic governor has had little to nothing to say about incarcerated people during her many livestreamed briefings or national television news appearances.

So on Thursday I joined the virtual queue with other journalists to ask Lujan Grisham during her weekly update why her administration has not been testing inmates or guards.

She didn’t have a clear answer.

“We are on it,” the governor said. “We didn’t not go to any corrections facilities.”  

Her Health Department chief, Kathy Kunkel, helped parse what Lujan Grisham was saying, offering an explanation for why so little testing has been performed behind bars. The state had been “more reactive,” she said, testing only those with symptoms or assisting county jails with contact testing after an inmate tests positive.

“We evaluate them carefully because there is somewhat of a supply chain — we are somewhat limited, and we are careful,” Kunkel added.

In response to a question from another journalist, the governor acknowledged that the state has not been testing to its full 5,000 daily capacity in the state’s general population.  No longer are New Mexicans waiting in long lines to get tested as they were a few weeks ago, she said. 

So if New Mexico can test more people, that leaves a huge question mark.

Why has the state lagged in prison testing? 

Lujan Grisham mentioned twice during her prepared remarks that inmates had been sewing masks for “themselves and others.” That means prisoners are working to keep themselves safe, but they are, so far, left out of the state’s widening definition for who can get tested. 

But in answering the second of my two questions, Lujan Grisham might give hope to those who want more of a focus on ensuring the health of incarcerated people.

She announced in mid-April that New Mexico had been selected by the White House as one of nine states to pilot a program for so-called sentinel, or surveillance testing — a public health strategy in which officials target potentially vulnerable populations or hotspots for wide-scale testing regardless of symptoms.

The prisons, Lujan Grisham said Thursday, will be among New Mexico’s “lead” populations for that program. She offered no timeline for when it will begin — rather, she criticized the White House and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for disorganization around sentinel testing, saying she wished “that aspect had materialized a bit faster.”

She didn’t say how many inmates or guards would be tested, but assured New Mexicans that prisoners would not be forgotten, calling them a “high priority.”

“I want to make that really clear,” Lujan Grisham continued. “I think there are some individuals around the world and the country that don’t see this as A., a high risk, or that it should be a public priority response. We disagree. It should be. It will be. It is. And we are securing the resources so that we can fully execute those efforts.”

Her long-awaited first public comments about the prisons comes against an increasingly grim national backdrop.

If you haven’t been following this issue closely, I strongly urge you to read this story from the amazing journalists at The Marshall Project, a national, nonprofit newsroom focused on criminal justice issues, and peruse the data included in the piece.

Here are some of the most significant horrors to emerge from TMP’s analysis: At least 9,437 inmates in American state and federal prisons have tested positive for the virus; at least 131 of them have died. More than 4,000 corrections officers have COVID-19, with at least 13 of them dying.

I’ll leave this eye-opening revelation to Marshall Project staffers Katie Park, Tom Meagher and Weihua Li:

The Marshall Project compared the spread of coronavirus among prisoners to the nation as a whole. In the first weeks that COVID-19 made its way into prisons, the infection rate lagged well behind the country overall. In the past two weeks, that has changed dramatically. The prison infection rate now eclipses the spread among the general population by more than 150 percent.

Another pair of Marshall Project journalists, Cary Aspinwall and Joseph Neff, published a story last week that identified another potential trend: States that test large portions of their incarcerated populations find lots of infection. 

For example: Of 1,700 inmates living on a prison farm in Lincoln County, Arkansas, 680 have the virus. The discovery came after a significant jump in testing.

And at Lakeland prison in Michigan, officials have pledged to test each of the facility’s 1,400 inmates. Why? Because 73% of the first 535 people tested had the virus.

(Please read the full story from Aspinwall and Neff for a deeper exploration of this phenomenon.)

Back here in New Mexico, testing has definitely ramped up in some of the county jails. (Quick refresher: Jails are run by New Mexico counties and largely incarcerate people who are awaiting trial or have been sentenced to 364 days or less; Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration runs the state prisons, where people are sentenced to a year or more behind bars after they’ve been convicted.)

The state’s largest jail is the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County. It can hold up to 2,400 inmates, but currently has a population of less than 1,500. Of those, more than 90 have been tested, with three coming back positive, county spokesman Larry Gallegos told NMID. A further 17 corrections officers have been tested; none has the virus.

In Santa Fe, 82 of 306 inmates have been tested — one of them three times, spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said. That inmate tested positive once, then negative twice. No other positive test results have emerged from the jail, including among the 18 staffers who were tested.

And earlier this week, I interviewed an inmate in the Luna County Detention Center in Deming about the conditions inside during the pandemic. As part of that story, I spoke with Chris Brice, the county manager and jail warden down there.

Brice offered an unvarnished thought that stopped me during the interview. “If we had it available, we would test everybody — inmates, staff. It would be nice to know who’s who.”

Instead, he’s tested four inmates and three staffers — not nearly as many as he’d like, but approaching the number tested by the Lujan Grisham administration in a prison population that is 30 times larger.

For me, the question has loomed, grown, troubled: Why, in a state that has received glowing national news coverage for its heavy focus on testing, aren’t officials seeking to find out who does and does not have the virus behind the walls?

Perhaps there will be a shift toward looking for those answers once the sentinel testing program gets rolled out. But New Mexico saw its first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 11 — seven weeks ago. If officials do find an outbreak inside the walls, that’s a long time to have waited.

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