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.
Commissioners for New Mexico’s fourth largest county on Thursday asked a judge to release non-violent jail inmates “during the State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus,” New Mexico In Depth has learned. Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer on Thursday filed a three-page petition for writ of mandamus — a fast-tracking procedure used in exceptional circumstances — asking the District Court to blunt the “serious health risk” of the new coronavirus to those inside the jail by releasing people immediately. Hammer’s petition also asks the court to prohibit future bookings of anyone else charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony into the detention center until Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifts her State of Emergency declaration. The petition is set to be heard Tuesday by Chief District Judge George Eichwald. The move marks the first time a voice from outside New Mexico’s criminal defense community has called for releasing inmates amid the growing COVID-19 crisis.
A group of more than two dozen New Mexico prison inmates, many with compromised immune systems, are considering legal claims against the state Corrections Department for its “gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the dangers of COVID-19,” according to documents obtained by SFR and New Mexico In Depth. As the rest of New Mexico remains under an order against gatherings of over 50 people and pleas from officials to practice social distancing, the state’s prison system has not tested any of the thousands of inmates locked up or the corrections officers guarding them. And there do not appear to be contingency plans in place should an outbreak occur. Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in civil rights, visited clients at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on March 9, he wrote in a notice sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and corrections officials four days later. An officer told him the minimum-security lockup “was taking no precautions against coronavirus.”
“It was indicated that it was not a serious threat and there was nothing to worry about,” Collins wrote in the notice.
Huge concertina wire coils and tall, monochrome walls command my attention as I walk through a locked metal gate and out into the prison courtyard. A thick bank of clouds over southern Santa Fe County intensifies the cloistered feel hanging over the Penitentiary of New Mexico, the state’s only Level-6 prison. As I leave the courtyard and return inside, I’m focused on the nearly silent clicking as my colleague takes photos of an empty day room and the sliver-like cells surrounding it for a yet-to-publish story months in the making. But for a moment, something invisible — if it’s even there — distracts me. What if COVID-19 got into a place like this?
Shannon Kennedy was “shocked” when she came across a document filed by the defense for the Hobbs Police Department while preparing for a sweeping civil rights trial focused on allegations of racist policing. The well-known Albuquerque lawyer and her partners had hired a police practices expert and a demographer to investigate claims by three former Hobbs Police Department officers, their clients, that department brass pushed them out for raising concerns about targeting black and Hispanic communities.
The demographer produced a detailed, 15-page report that showed Hobbs PD made a majority of “pedestrian stops” in the city’s heavily black and Hispanic south end and that non-whites were far more likely to find themselves detained by officers in such stops. The demographer’s report, which relied on population mapping and data analysis, was dated July 30, 2019. A few months later, lawyers representing the city of Hobbs, which has a documented history of discriminatory policing, hired its own expert to produce a report on “the perceived issues in the case.” The resulting two-and-a-half-page document says simply the methodology used by the plaintiffs’ demographer — examining stop, detention and arrest rates in certain locations — is “an ineffective and flawed measure” of policing. The report does not address the demographer’s findings.
A legislative effort to reform parts of New Mexico’s probation and parole systems is limping along as lawmakers near the halfway mark of this year’s 30-day session. House Bill 263, with a large group of sponsors from both parties, is meant primarily to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are sent back to jail or prison for relatively minor infractions, so-called “technical violations.” Those include some failed drug tests and missing appointments with a probation or parole officer. If passed and signed, the measure would mark the beginning of a shift for the Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division — from a punitive approach to a more restorative philosophy.
That means helping people address the underlying issues that keep them in the criminal justice system instead of trying to ensure public safety with jail cells — particularly when considering people who commit lesser offenses.
That core purpose of the bill has remained intact over the past year, as legislators have worked on a “compromise” version with state prosecutors and others following a dust-up over the proposed reforms after last year’s legislative session. The state House and Senate passed a broader set of changes in 2019, but they met Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto pen after Attorney General Hector Balderas and all 14 of New Mexico’s district attorneys sent her a letter outlined fatal problems as they saw them. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham asked sponsors to meet with the prosecutors and iron out their differences.
A state senator says she’ll push for laws in the coming years to answer a long-troubling question in New Mexico: does the criminal justice system here disproportionately target non-white people? Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat and former law professor, tells New Mexico In Depth she was “stunned” to learn during this year’s legislative session, her first in the Senate, that few agencies collect or share data on the race and ethnicity of people caught up in the system. “I thought, how was I not aware of this?,” she said in an interview this week. “It was really weird.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque
So Sedillo Lopez is working up a memorial she plans to introduce at the 2020 session, which begins in January, directing the New Mexico Sentencing Commission to study how — and whether — the state’s jails and prisons gather demographic information on people who are locked up or on probation. Though she doesn’t yet have a detailed plan for the next step, she aims to use the study to bolster a bill in 2021 that would “ensure that this data is collected and continues to be collected regardless of who’s in charge.”
The Sentencing Commission says it’ll be glad to do the work.
Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.
A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”
The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes.
Democratic legislative leaders predicted criminal justice reform would be among the top priorities for the 60-day session that began in January. It appears they were right. Several substantial shifts in how New Mexico approaches crime and punishment remain alive as the session speeds toward its conclusion on Saturday. Some of them have been years in the making. A Senate bill to “ban the box,” prohibiting private sector employers from inquiring about people’s past criminal records in the early stages of an employment process, has passed the upper chamber and appears headed for a vote in the House.