Lujan Grisham administration says it will conduct wide-scale COVID-19 testing in NM prisons

New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Failure of prison coronavirus testing in NM begs scrutiny

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New MexicanGovernor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital. Six-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-eight people woke up Thursday morning behind bars in New Mexico’s 11 prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. Just eight of them have been tested for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease, COVID-19. 

That’s a test rate of .0012%. The state employs about 1,800 people to supervise those inmates and oversee the lockups; it has ordered tests for 33 of them. The rate: 1.8%.

Report identifying nonviolent offenders eligible for release sits on shelf during pandemic

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week took a step toward releasing prisoners to blunt the threat of an outbreak of the new coronavirus in New Mexico’s 11 prisons. The first-term, Democratic governor signed a three-page executive order directing her Corrections Department secretary to release nonviolent inmates who have 30 days or less on their sentences and meet other criteria. 

But more than a week later, just 14 of the state’s 6,600 inmates had been freed, according to the department, and it is not clear how many others have been identified for release. 

New Mexico In Depth, meanwhile, has unearthed an annual survey identifying hundreds of nonviolent inmates — many serving time for drug possession — who could be released during the course of a year. In a six-page annual report from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s non-partisan, criminal justice data clearinghouse and policy advising hub, authors wrote that 294 people behind bars in the state’s prisons on June 30, 2019, could be released between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30 of this year.

Santa Fe County Jail Inmate Has Coronavirus

An inmate at the Santa Fe County jail has tested positive for the new coronavirus, marking the second person behind bars in New Mexico with a confirmed case of the respiratory illness. A Santa Fe County spokeswoman said Monday that the man had come into contact with Jennifer Burrill, a Santa Fe-based public defender who contracted COVID-19 and tested positive last month. But Burrill disputed that claim in an interview later Monday evening. On Tuesday, County Manager Katherine Miller said officials don’t know how the man contracted the virus. His name had been on an internal county schedule to meet with a public defender on March 11, she said, prompting the jail to test him “out of an abundance of caution” on March 28.