Report identifying nonviolent offenders eligible for release sits on shelf during pandemic

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.

Santa Fe County Jail Inmate Has Coronavirus

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.

Zia Pueblo sees COVID-19 outbreak

Editor’s note: Less then 24 hours after this report, the New Mexico governor’s office confirmed an outbreak on Zia Pueblo, with 31 positive cases, plus an outbreak on San Felipe Pueblo, with 52 cases. And Zuni Pueblo Governor Val Panteah confirmed 15 cases and one death on Zuni. Eleven members of Zia Pueblo in Sandoval County have tested positive for COVID-19, New Mexico In Depth has learned. 

“As of today April 5th, the Pueblo of Zia has confirmed 11 Zia Tribal Members, potentially 20, infected by COVID-19(Coronavirus),” Acting Governor Floyd Toribio wrote Sunday in a memo to tribal members. 

The pueblo, about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, has fewer than 1,000 members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making Zia one of the smallest pueblos in New Mexico. 

“If this statement does not make you realize how real and close to home this truly is, then we don’t know what will. We are a small, close-knit community with strong family connections,” Toribio said in the memo. 

The nature of the fast-spreading virus put tribal and state officials on alert Monday in a state that is home to 19 Pueblos, three Apache tribes, and a portion of the Navajo Nation. 

“We are endangered communities and one person lost to the virus takes a toll on the entire community,” said J. Michael Chavarria, Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, in an email. Many households in New Mexico’s tribal communities include multiple generations, with five or more family members living under the same roof, tribal officials said.