Jeffrey Holland ate a late lunch Friday and went home with a minor headache. Jeffrey Holland, one of 19 individuals pardoned by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham / Courtesy of Jeffrey Holland
Just as the Albuquerque native closed his eyes for a short respite amid the chaos of his day, the phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but answered—because the longtime substance abuse counselor and stubborn believer in overcoming—is always on call. “It was a young lady from the Governor’s Office,” says Holland, a close, personal friend of this reporter. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m calling to let you know that your clemency has been granted by the governor.
Hundreds of nonviolent New Mexico prison inmates, including people convicted of drug possession, remained behind bars last week, even as COVID-19 killed its first state prisoner and infected one in three inmates at the Otero County Prison Facility near the southern border. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has won national praise for how she’s led New Mexico through the pandemic, is facing questions over why she hasn’t moved more aggressively to ensure more of the state’s 11 prisons don’t become viral hotspots.
Since March, her administration has freed about 50 inmates — less than 1% of the state’s prison population — through an April 6 order that requires her to commute sentences rather than using a law already on the books that would allow hundreds of prisoners to be released early.
The minimal prisoner releases pale next to what some states have done to ease crowding in — and the 30% reduction New Mexico counties have accomplished in the state’s 27 jails. Lujan Grisham’s approach has given some pause, especially given the first-term Democrat’s advocacy for legalizing recreational cannabis and her recent creation of a Council for Racial Justice in response to protests that spilled into New Mexico streets over the killing by police of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.
About one quarter of those locked up in New Mexico’s prisons are in for nonviolent drug offenses, including many, some long-time criminal justice watchers say, who were prosecuted for possessing marijuana — an offense that would be legal if New Mexico green-lighted recreational cannabis as Lujan Grisham has lobbied. Hispanic and black people are disproportionately incarcerated in New Mexico, as they are nationwide.
State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, believed the pandemic represented a “golden opportunity” for the Lujan Grisham administration to try a different approach besides prison, but he’s “very disappointed,” he said.
“They basically haven’t dented the prison population, and now there is an outbreak which anyone could have predicted,” Ortiz y Pino said. “I have been concerned about why we have these kinds of low-level drug offenders locked up for a long time, and I am even more concerned now.”
Mark Donatelli, a longtime criminal defense and civil rights lawyer based in Santa Fe, wants to know why the governor hasn’t released prisoners using the Community Corrections Act.
This analysis was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity. Before he was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, George Floyd, like millions of African Americans, lost his job because of the coronavirus pandemic. After months of a pandemic that has seen African Americans die at almost double their numbers in the U.S. population and generations of police and white supremacist violence against Black people, a mix of rage and despair is once again burning across the country. Susan Smith Richardson / Courtesy of Center for Public Integrity
The police violence and the impact of the pandemic are two sides of the same coin. “What’s happened with Floyd, and in the history of the U.S., is about whether Black folks can execute power over what their lives are going to look like,” said Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization in Washington, D.C., focused on ideas that improve the socioeconomic status of African Americans.
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center Jeff Proctor/NMID
New Mexico’s 27 adult county jails have slashed their combined population by a third since the new coronavirus began tearing through the state 11 weeks ago, according to data gathered by the New Mexico Association of Counties. On March 13, two days after New Mexico saw its first confirmed COVID-19 cases, counties held nearly 6,000 men and women behind bars; by Wednesday, May 27, around 4,000 sat in jails around the state, the vast majority of them awaiting trial. District attorneys, public defenders and county officials told New Mexico In Depth the rapid population reductions could signal a long-term shift toward locking fewer people up, in a state that historically has had higher rates of incarceration in jails than most others. Some of the largest dips have been in counties hardest hit by the virus, including McKinley (more than a 60% decrease) and San Juan (with a 45% decline). The numbers appear to be ticking back up since the low point on May 1, but Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, calls the overall trend a “significant reduction.”
The sharp decline comes from a joint effort to avoid an outbreak in jails of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands of inmates and guards nationwide, killing hundreds.
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.
Before inmates at the privately run Cibola County Correctional Center near Grants received face coverings last month, they had to sign on the dotted line. “They made us sign a waiver stipulating that if we incur any damages or injuries or what have you due to wearing the mask, that we relinquish CoreCivic (the giant, for-profit prison operator) from all liability,” one Cibola County inmate, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, told New Mexico In Depth. “And that we’re personally volunteering to wear the mask. So, if you sign the waiver, then you receive the mask.”
Family members of a second inmate, who also asked to be unnamed, described a nearly identical experience. Inmates “have been told that unless they sign a release form they do not get a mask,” the family said.
A spokesman for CoreCivic this week wrote in an email that the company had not required legal waivers in order for inmates to receive masks.
New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.
Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New MexicanGovernor 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%.
Joseph Chavez. Image courtesy of his family. Joseph Chavez says he gets one “tiny” bar of soap a week, gratis. If he wants more, it’ll cost him. And yet, corrections officers have for weeks steadily reminded Chavez, 42, and the other inmates being held with him in solitary confinement cells at the Penitentiary of New Mexico’s south facility near Santa Fe that they need to wash their hands.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week took a step toward releasing prisoners to blunt the threat of an outbreak of the new coronavirus in New Mexico’s 11 prisons. The first-term, Democratic governor signed a three-page executive order directing her Corrections Department secretary to release nonviolent inmates who have 30 days or less on their sentences and meet other criteria.
But more than a week later, just 14 of the state’s 6,600 inmates had been freed, according to the department, and it is not clear how many others have been identified for release.
New Mexico In Depth, meanwhile, has unearthed an annual survey identifying hundreds of nonviolent inmates — many serving time for drug possession — who could be released during the course of a year. In a six-page annual report from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s non-partisan, criminal justice data clearinghouse and policy advising hub, authors wrote that 294 people behind bars in the state’s prisons on June 30, 2019, could be released between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30 of this year.
An inmate at the Santa Fe County jail has tested positive for the new coronavirus, marking the second person behind bars in New Mexico with a confirmed case of the respiratory illness. A Santa Fe County spokeswoman said Monday that the man had come into contact with Jennifer Burrill, a Santa Fe-based public defender who contracted COVID-19 and tested positive last month. But Burrill disputed that claim in an interview later Monday evening. On Tuesday, County Manager Katherine Miller said officials don’t know how the man contracted the virus. His name had been on an internal county schedule to meet with a public defender on March 11, she said, prompting the jail to test him “out of an abundance of caution” on March 28.