‘We’re stuck in here.’ Woman describes life inside Luna County jail during pandemic

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Shauna Smith, pictured with her dog at a family member’s home in Arizona. (courtesy: Smith’s family)

The Luna County Detention Center holds 590 inmates at maximum capacity.

As of Wednesday morning, just over 200 people were locked inside the jail in Deming, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border.

Shauna Smith, a 43-year-old mother who has been incarcerated there since October, said the inmate population has been steadily thinning since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across New Mexico in early March.

The county of roughly 24,000 people has seen just 347 tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with three positive results as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department.

Like so many other jails and prisons around the state, few of those tests were performed at the Luna County Detention Center — four inmates and three staff members, all of whom were negative.

Smith was arrested Oct. 14 on suspicion of transporting undocumented immigrants for profit — a federal offense. She was supposed to be sentenced March 24, and hoped she’d be released after already serving five months. 

That was 13 days after New Mexico had its first COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has left Smith’s case a bit in the air. Luna County has a contract to house U.S. Marshals’ detainees, which is how she came to be locked up there with a few hundred others, mostly charged, like her, with nonviolent offenses.

Since the pandemic hit New Mexico, the jail population has decreased dramatically because fewer federal detainees are being transferred in, among other reasons.  

Smith spoke for half an hour with New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday. In the main, she sympathized with the “uncharted territory” jail staff find themselves in as they navigate supervising inmates during a pandemic.

But she said there are gaps.

Most guards aren’t wearing masks, Smith said. And inmates weren’t offered face coverings until about a week ago. (Smith’s mask features an American flag pattern. “No one cut up an actual American flag or anything,” she said; she hasn’t been wearing hers much. Instead, “it now mostly hangs as a reminder of the ideals of what our country is supposed to be; not what it actually is.”)

Inmates are frustrated with the answers they’re getting from jail staff about the virus, she said. That’s created some “paranoia.”

Smith has a heart condition that makes her medically vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. That makes her nervous about being incarcerated, she told NMID.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

New Mexico In Depth: Can you tell me a little bit about your family? Are you married? Do you have kids?

Shauna Smith: I am not married, never have been married; don’t really believe in the whole institution of marriage — I’m one of those. But I do have two daughters. One, I put up for adoption, she was born when I was 26. It was an open adoption, and she lives in Oregon. Then, I have a daughter that is with her father who lives in Arizona right now. She is 8.

NMID: Do you live in Arizona?

SS: I do. I live in Bisbee, Arizona.

NMID: You are in the Luna County Detention Center here in New Mexico, correct?

SS: Yes, I am.

NMID: How long have you been incarcerated there, Shauna?

SS: I was arrested October 13, 2019. I have been in Luna County the whole time.

NMID: Do you know about how many other inmates are in the jail you’re in.

SS: I believe, if what I’ve heard is correct, that around 500 is their max occupancy, and then, right now, I’ve heard that there’s only about 220.

NMID: Has that number gone down a lot in recent weeks?

SS: Oh, yes. Since the COVID-19? The pod (living areas that contain numerous cells inside jails and prisons) that I’ve been in pretty much the whole time except five days — it’s a max occupancy, I think, of 38, and we are down to 14 of us now.

NMID: And a lot of that thinning of the population has taken place, as far as you know, since the COVID-19?

SS: Yes. We were informed that, because it’s their county jail, they contract with the feds — so, we’re mixed with people on state charges in this area. So, I was told they stopped getting federal detainees back when the COVID was happening, at its peak, when it was getting all the attention in the beginning. … We haven’t seen anyone new in this pod in, what, a few weeks, maybe. We had one transfer from Otero. She had been locked up since October, too. 

NMID: Can you describe the pod you’re in? Is it sort of dormitory style? How is the pod set up?

SS: There’s nine metal bunks in the main part of the pod, and then there’s 10 curved-door rooms that have two beds each in them. There’s a toilet in each of the rooms, so the people that live out in — we call it ‘The Streets,’ if you’re out in the open pod, you’ve living in ‘The Streets’ — they have to go into one of the two-bunk rooms to use the toilet. 

NMID: Have they changed the setup of the pod at all since COVID-19?

SS: No.

NMID: What have they told you about the coronavirus? When did they start telling inmates what was going on? What’s your sense, other than speaking with your family and your attorney, from the jail staff of what’s going on?

SS: … From the time we started seeing it on the news, I feel like it took two or three weeks for someone to come in and talk to us about it. He works for the county … He came in and kind of was like, this is a little bit of what’s going on, and then the deputy director came in and told us a little more … Most of the information I’ve gotten has been from my family and the news. We haven’t been told much on a regular basis.This isn’t a judgment or anything — I know everyone is just trying to adjust and everything. They’ve seemingly been pretty accommodating. …

NMID: What is the situation with masks in the jail? Were you given one?

SS:  I got my mask about two weeks ago, pretty much when it seems like everyone else did. Wait, my friend Sonia — my fact-checker — is here with me, and she says it was more like a week.  … we were told we had to wear them if we left the pod.  

NMID: You were telling me about the inconsistency of corrections officers wearing masks. (Editor’s note: NMID had a brief technical mishap as masks were discussed — our recorder ran out of space, and the 15 minutes allowed for inmate calls expired. NMID was able to use a different recorder for a second, 15-minute call, and the interview picks up below.

SS: Some of them have, some of them haven’t. … one of them will say, ‘Oh, it’s for your protection,’ and then the next one says something or does something different. There’s just no consistency from what I’ve seen. … I have seen firsthand, they are not wearing masks. I’m not gonna lie about it. Once in a while, you’ll see someone wearing one for like an hour, two hours. One time they’ll be wearing one when they come in on their shift, then the other five times they come in on their shift, they’re not 

NMID: Do you know if they have tested any inmates, or any staff in that jail for the coronavirus?

SS: I am not aware that they have, and I do not believe that they have. (Editor’s note: Luna County Manager Chris Brice tells NMID that four inmates and three staff members have been tested; all came back negative.) The only thing that they have done: I believe that they have taken temps, and if you have a high temp, I know that someone was feeling body aches in here, and so they pulled her from the pod and took her into a different area for 72 hours to watch her and make sure that her temperature didn’t go up or anything else. I feel like they’re being conscientious, I guess, in that regard. If you say you have symptoms, from what I’ve seen, they’ve been pretty on top of it. But I don’t believe there’s been any actual tests on coronavirus. I actually asked, because when I get out of here, there’s a concern with where I’m going back to my ex and my daughter’s house. With my daughter’s father, he has asked, ‘Are they going to test you before you get out of the jail?’ so that I’m not bringing something back to Arizona.

NMID: Is there a concern among the inmates that an outbreak might happen? What are people talking about in terms of what their fears are related to the coronavirus? 

SS: At the beginning, when this was a lot more unknown, …people were like, ‘What the heck?’  … I felt like the COs were gonna just leave and forget that we were locked up in here. The world was changing, and it felt like, ‘Wait! Wait! Can you guys just please unlock the door before you take off and I never see you again?’ We know, obviously, that’s not going to happen now, but the fervor was more related to the fact that I think all of us wanted to be out there with our families in such uncertain times. I’m in a minimum security pod, most of the girls are not in here on violent offenses. … you hear that we’re getting out on nonviolent offenses and that type of thing, and that’s not happening. So that was a concern, especially because most of us in here are mothers. We want to be out there with our children, who maybe have no idea what’s going on and how the world is changing on the outside. It’s changed everything. 

NMID: I understand that you have a health condition that might make you medically vulnerable if you were to contract the virus. Can you tell me about that?

SS: I had my mitral valve replaced with a bovine valve when I was between 30 and 32. … I do have a bovine valve that will probably have to be replaced at some time in my life. They tend to have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. … You never know how your body is going to respond to something like that.

NMID: There is some information that folks with heart conditions might be particularly vulnerable. Does that make you nervous, being incarcerated right now?

SS: It absolutely does. This is where it’s extremely frustrating, because my sentencing was supposed to be on March 24. And my sentencing date happened to fall right in that week where there was so much — the shit was hitting the fan, so to speak. Now, I don’t have a sentencing date, and with that being an issue, I hear some of the guards say, ‘Well, you’re safer in here.’ And I know the pods are thinning out in terms of population, but how would I be safer in here than I would be in home isolation with just my daughter and her father? I don’t even know who makes my food in here. I don’t see that. I’m getting so much (information) from outside sources …

NMID: And you don’t control who comes in the door and who goes out the door.

SS: Exactly, or who they’ve been in contact with. Of course, it’s a jail. There’s a rotation of so many staff. Even if you thin out the inmate population, the staff is still continually rotating. They’re on shifts; it’s a regular job. So, in that regard, when I’m in my sentencing range, when I have a house approved in Arizona by probation for me to go back to, and I can’t even get a sentencing date now. 

NMID: One thing I’m hearing in speaking with inmates in different facilities around the state is a lack of soap. I’m curious about what the soap situation is in the detention center that you’re in. Do you have enough soap, especially given that one of the things we’re all told to do is wash our hands a thousand times a day?

SS: I’ve never heard them tell us, even before this (pandemic), no, if you ran out of a bar of soap. I mean, they give us a bar of soap a week. We get a bar a week. And most people will buy extra soap or body wash on commissary, especially because the bars of soap are just used for washing your hands. …There’s no hand sanitizer, obviously. And then there was an issue with them coming in and spraying like once an hour with a bottle. That’s a relatively new development, probably in the last couple weeks. They’ve upped the ante on bringing in a disinfectant and spray the tables down. Sometimes they don’t always give us paper towels to wipe down the tables. They come in and spray, and it’s up to us to wipe it down.

NMID: If you want more soap than that one bar they give you per week, you have to buy it, right?

SS: You can also ask. I’ve never seen a guard say no to someone. … Toilet paper was an issue for a while; that’s been a little better. You don’t get paper towels, though. So we don’t get to wipe things down every time.

NMID: What else should people know about what’s going on in that jail during the pandemic?

SS: I think that this is a learning experience. I hope that everyone can learn from it, to bring more consistency, to bring more honesty to the equation. We’re stuck in here. We’re isolated. Like I said, I’m in a minimum security, so most of us are nonviolent offenders, and we want to be out there with our families during this unprecedented time. Unfortunately, we’re in here. And there are inconsistencies, and it’s very limited with the answers to questions that we ask, and that makes it that much more frustrating. It feels like, are you guys hiding something from us? Those questions are what create paranoia.

In response to questions from NMID, Luna County Manager Chris Brice, who is also the jail warden, offered an account that largely tracked with Shauna Smith’s.

The jail’s population, Brice said, “is dramatically less than when this started,” largely through efforts among local and federal law enforcement, the courts, defense lawyers and prosecutors to keep the jail less crowded and blunt the potential spread of the virus.

The jail has offered masks to inmates, Brice said, and allows staff to wear them if they prefer.

There’s a “quarantine pod” inside the detention center for inmates who display symptoms and are identified for testing. Speaking of testing, Brice said: “If we had it available, we would test everybody — inmates, staff. It would be nice to know who’s who.”

He said the county “takes pride in running, not an easy place, but a tight place.” Finally, in response to Smith’s concerns about inmates receiving incomplete or conflicting information from guards, Brice said he has instructed his staff “not to pontificate on anything. It’s better not to say a lot unless it’s something they absolutely know is a fact.”

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