New Mexico’s jail population dropped by a third earlier this year as officials agreed to incarcerate fewer people to avoid the spread COVID-19. But the population has crept back up since June and infections have soared among both inmates and staff from 37 cases by early June to nearly 970 as of September 25, according to government data reviewed by New Mexico In Depth. It’s not clear whether more crowded jails, along with their decreased chances for social distancing, has spiked the case numbers. Virus cases have dramatically increased in a handful of jails in counties where cases have remained stubbornly high outside the walls — and officials say inmates are entering the jails already infected, identified by testing as they are booked.
But the increases in cases and populations have renewed discussions about how to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further inside jails and the communities they serve. Officials hope to repeat the success of the low infection numbers through the pandemic’s first few months, when law enforcement, judges, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense lawyers cooperated to keep jail populations down.