NM jails report 900 new virus cases since June as population numbers tick back up

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The Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center

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.

Jails have transient populations, housing people awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year for relatively minor crimes. Some people only stay a few nights. That means inmates come in and out far more frequently than in the state’s prisons, where sentences run from a year to life.

Part of what’s driving the upswing in jail populations, according to Grace Phillips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties: increases in arrests for minor crimes such as “technical” probation violations or petty misdemeanors, such as traffic warrants.

“These are things we have encouraged them not to do and that we had significant buy-in on from a lot of our justice system partners,” she said of sending people to jail for low-level rule violations. “When we are able to keep those numbers low, social distancing inside the facilities is so much easier, and we are able to get people out of their cells more regularly, which we are required to do.”

Some counties also have reported jumps in domestic violence incidents, Phillips said, leading to the incarceration of more alleged abusers.

Here is a breakdown of overall COVID-19 cases in New Mexico and select counties as of Oct. 5, and the number of infections in those counties’ jails as of Sept. 25, the most recent data available. 

Statewide: 30,632 cases

Doña Ana County: 3,678 cases; Jail: 136 inmates; 21 staff

Luna County: 449 cases; Jail: 70 inmates; seven staff

San Juan County: 3,392 cases; Jail: 278 inmates; 25 staff

Bernalillo County: 6,928 cases; Jail: 66 inmates; 15 staff

Source: Statewide and County totals per the Governor’s office; Jail totals per Grace Phillips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties.

Before New Mexico recorded its first virus case on March 11, the jails held more than 6,000 people. That figure plummeted to around 3,800.

And the population remains relatively low. As of September 25, just over 4,800 people were incarcerated in the state’s jails.

There have been significant outbreaks in a small group of lockups, infecting 792 inmates and 174 staff, the figures Phillips provided to New Mexico In Depth show.

There’s been little public reporting on the steady climb. In June, New Mexico In Depth published a story about the dramatic decrease in jail populations statewide, which officials attributed to a collaboration among judges, lawyers and county officials to avoid the outbreaks seen in some of the state’s prisons.

The various entities worked to ensure that people who were charged with committing less serious crimes could remain free while their cases moved through the courts, Phillips said at the time.

The effort worked. Identified infections remained remarkably low for the first months of the pandemic.

One example was an initiative to not incarcerate people who violated conditions of probation by missing appointments with officers or failing a first drug test.

State lawmakers had a chance to codify that practice into state law during the special legislative session in June, but failed. 

As a result, more of those people are now winding up in jail.

Locking them up for a few days ensures jails with large total virus case counts — San Juan (303 cases), Doña Ana (157) and Bernalillo (81) counties — are at risk of continued outbreaks because of the increasing inmate populations and the revolving-door nature of people who are booked there.

A DWI defendant, for example, might spend a weekend in jail at risk of infection the entire stay.

Conversely, people who are already infected could enter one of those jails, take a test, not learn the result quickly and spread it inside. 

Testing has increased in recent months at most of the state’s 27 adult county jails, many of which test each inmate as they’re booked in, Phillips said. 

“The more testing you do, the more (virus) you’re going to find,” she said. “And beyond those intake tests, a lot of counties are testing 25% of their more stable, long-term populations on a regular basis.” 

Phillips said she doesn’t think the increased numbers indicate community spread. But it’s unknown because the state Health Department doesn’t appear to be tracking recently incarcerated people to determine whether they are spreading the virus on the outside.

Additionally, neither the state nor the counties can say whether anyone who was infected before going to jail or who contracted it while inside has died or been hospitalized.

It’s another gap in the data the state Health Department has gathered during the past six months about the virus and its spread.

“To date, there have been no COVID-positive deaths of detainees in county detention centers while incarcerated and the department is unaware of any of the cases who have been released after testing positive dying of COVID-related complications after release,” Health Department spokesman David Morgan wrote in response to questions from New Mexico In Depth.

Morgan did not say whether the Health Department plans to track whether jail inmates have died or been hospitalized after positive coronavirus tests.

There has been no news reporting or public releases showing a jail inmate had died from the coronavirus.

“I would like to think that if somebody died, I would know about it,” said Phillips. “And while I have not been made aware of anything like that, there is no for-sure way of knowing whether someone who has been in jail and had COVID has died.”

Another problem has complicated county and state efforts.

There are slow turnaround times for inmate and guard tests in several counties, Phillips said. Sometimes it takes more than a week and, by then, the results are useless. That’s because some inmates who test positive tests have been released and never learn of the results.

If a result is not yet complete when someone is released, most jails send them home with a form that tells them how to learn their results. But sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of people who have been let out.

Without a column in the state’s contact tracing efforts that would identify the formerly incarcerated, there’s really no way to know.

“And for those who are still in jail, seven, eight days for a turnaround is not helpful,” she said. “The vast majority of cases have been asymptomatic, and if you don’t know who has it, it creates all kinds of opportunity for spread. This should be a priority.”

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