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? None of our institutions seems particularly well prepared for this new threat … But what would happen if there were an outbreak in a prison? This is, in many instances, a vulnerable, literally captive population …
Like many Americans, I’ve watched with alarm as a new coronavirus called COVID-19 has exploded into a public health emergency in recent weeks. In an effort to be a good citizen and practice “social distancing,” I caught a livestream of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s news conference around midday Wednesday.
The governor spent nearly two hours laying out facts — three apparently confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, an executive order declaring a state of emergency to free up even more resources — and assuring reporters the state had plenty of capacity to test people for the virus. (Later Wednesday, an apparent fourth case emerged in Santa Fe County.)
Many of those reporters asked questions floating through my mind.
But no one asked about the state’s 12 prisons, with an overall population of about 6,700 people, and nearly 30 county jails, where a slightly larger set of people is incarcerated on a given day.
So I did.
On Wednesday afternoon, about an hour after Lujan Grisham’s event ended, I sent a series of questions to the state Corrections Department, the Santa Fe County Detention Center and the Metropolitan Detention Center, New Mexico’s largest county jail in Bernalillo County.
Are any of the lockups testing inmates for COVID-19? What contingencies exist in the event of an outbreak?
More on their answers in a bit.
But first, Jennifer Burrill, an attorney with the Law Office of the Public Defender in Santa Fe and vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, put the potentially dire consequences in context.
“With the amount of people and traffic that comes in and out of (jails and prisons) — whether it be vendors or new inmates or people being transferred from different facilities — how many people are gonna test positive?” Burrill said in a telephone interview. “And once we know that those people have exposed the other 500 or 1,000 people they’ve been living with, it’s gonna be a very serious situation.”
The risks extend beyond jail and prison walls.
With all those people coming and going, a COVID-19 infection inside could quickly spread to the broader community.
Despite efforts to keep jails and prisons clean, Burrill described them as “petri dishes” for infections and illnesses by their very designs.
With a steady flow of outsiders, a confined population of inmates and no mechanism to keep them separated, Lujan Grisham’s and other officials’ recommendations to contain the virus’ spread become seemingly impossible.
“I think the prison system is actually set up a little better to provide more care than the jails, at least in-house,” Burrill said. “But the conditions are really similar in terms of lots of people packed into small areas and with a pretty transient population. … The problem, at least from what we’ve been told, is that the coronavirus doesn’t have a vaccine. So, the only way is to try to isolate people to make sure people aren’t exposed to try to slow down the transmission. You just can’t do that in a jail or prison.”
Here’s how the two jails and the prison system responded to my questions:
- Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison said in an email that DOC has not tested any inmates for COVID-19. His email did not address several other questions, including why no inmates have been tested, whether the department plans any tests and what protocols are in place to prevent outbreaks and spreading. “We are coordinating closely with the Department of Health as they monitor the situation in New Mexico,” Harrison wrote instead.
- Santa Fe County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart told NMID that the capital city’s jail has not tested any of its inmates. The jail’s policy is to pre-screen inmates when they’re booked for symptoms of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and refer those who need testing to a local hospital. The same goes for inmates already locked up in the jail: If they display or complain of COVID-19 symptoms, they’d be sent to a hospital for testing and returned to a restricted area of the hospital if positive. Further, the jail is “aggressively cleaning” all “high-touch” areas and surfaces, Hart said. She added that, because there had been no positive tests in Santa Fe, the jail is not limiting visitation, and it has no broader plan to prevent the virus from getting into or leaving the jail. (After NMID spoke with Hart, Lujan Grisham’s office announced the state’s fourth apparent positive test, in Santa Fe County.)
- Tia Bland, a spokeswoman for Bernalillo County, told NMID that the Metropolitan Detention Center outside Albuquerque has been “screening” inmates for “risk factors” as they arrived at the jail since Feb. 13. None has been referred for a test, Bland said, adding that she did not know whether the jail is capable of testing in-house. Any positive result would be reported to the state Health Department, she wrote in an email, and the jail is paying “close attention” to its older population with existing health conditions. MDC educates inmates and staff about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, and officials there have designated “airborne isolation rooms” and two multi-inmate pods that could be used for quarantine if someone there tests positive.
The potential impacts of COVID-19 reaching detention centers is personal for Burrill. She mentioned a client awaiting trial in the Santa Fe County jail who has a spinal cord injury and a diabetic pump.
“I’m very concerned about if anything should happen to him, should he be exposed to that virus,” she said. “We have other clients who are diabetic — amputations and things they are waiting on as they get their cases resolved — and they are obviously immune-compromised, and so I know that’s one of our biggest issues is making sure our clients are protected.”
The public defender office’s executive board was in meetings all day Wednesday, planning a strategy to ensure clients in the state’s geographically diverse jails and prisons are protected against COVID-19, Burrill said.
She pointed out that people behind bars are of all ages and varying degrees of healthiness. Many residents might picture someone in their 20s who is fit and healthy, but large populations of inferm, geriatric people are incarcerated, too.
Defense lawyers care about all their clients, Burrill said, but there’s a particular concern with vulnerable people in light of something like COVID- 19.
“If the people in their mid-20s get it, they’re more likely to survive,” she said. “But we’re worried about the people who are in jail waiting for a trial, waiting to be able to have their day in court being ultimately sentenced to death because of this community health crisis.”
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters on Wednesday to the Corrections Department and to the New Mexico Association of Counties asking for written responses about how corrections and jail officials planned to address COVID-19 inside the walls.
The letters echoed many of Burrill’s concerns.
“Having an appropriate, evidence-based plan in place can help prevent an outbreak and minimize its impact if one does occur,” reads one passage. “Not having one may cost lives.”
The letters include several recommendations from the ACLU, such as educating inmates and staff about the virus, testing for it and developing a plan to house anyone who may become infected.
“The plan must describe how and where people in the jails will be housed if they are exposed to the virus, are at high risk of serious illness if they become infected, or become sick with it,” the letters read. “This should not result in prolonged, widespread lock-downs.”