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

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.

New Mexico native Shaun Griswold joins New Mexico In Depth team

New Mexico In Depth welcomes reporter Shaun Griswold to our team beginning next week. Shaun is Pueblo from Laguna, Jemez and Zuni, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. 

He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience to our team. He’s covered Rocky Mountain fire seasons, local police reform, and, as he is sure to note, the Denver Broncos and Kendrick Lamar. 

Shaun Griswold

We’re thrilled by the opportunity to work with Shaun, thanks to Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities through its reporting corps. Report for America is an initiative of the nonprofit news organization, The GroundTruth Project. He joins 225 reporters placed by the program in 162 newsrooms around the country, from a pool of more than 1,800 applicants. 

For New Mexico In Depth, Shaun will focus on issues important to urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque, as well as tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education, child welfare, and more. 

“I’m excited to join the ranks of Indigenous journalists at Indian Country Today, Navajo Times, High Country News and every publication focused on expanding news for thriving Indigenous communities that demand coverage,” he says about this opportunity. 

Native Americans compose 11% of the New Mexico state population, and Albuquerque is home to one of the largest communities of urban Indian  people in the country.

COVID-19 in New Mexico: What data can tell us. What it can’t.

New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases increased to 191 today, 17 people are hospitalized, one person has died. And now, the governor wants the U.S. Department of Defense to set up a staffed 248-bed combat hospital in Albuquerque. 

Lujan Grisham wrote it’s “urgently needed” in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper because COVID-19 might overwhelm  New Mexico’s medical facilities. That’s where New Mexico stands at the moment, and the combination of those stats, not to mention all the data and modeling that’s swirling around the internet, might make you anxious. 

Many turn to data to help them understand the world. But the big problem with data about COVID-19 is the gaps. There are many.

Navajo Nation asks tourists and other visitors to stay home as first Covid-19 cases emerge

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sat at a desk with Chlorox handwipes as he announced through an online broadcast that the Navajo Nation was closed to outside visitors now that two Navajo people have tested positive in the Kayenta, AZ area. 

There won’t be barricaded roads, but tourist areas are closed and he asked everyone to respect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation by not visiting during what he called an unprecedented situation. “The best thing to do is stay at home,” he said. 

In making the case for travelers to not come to the Navajo Nation, he noted that the first cases that emerged in New Mexico were from people who had traveled outside the state, bringing the “bug” home. He explained “bug,” saying was the best translation of virus in the Navajo language. 

Nez emphasized rapidly changing conditions, noting that recommendations from the federal government first limited gatherings to under 100, but have lowered now to groups of 10. He urged people to pay attention and to follow the advice of leaders. 

“We’re not closing down churches or ceremonies, but these are recommendations, just like we’re doing now, keeping 6 feet between us, rotating in and out of this room,” he said about how he and his colleagues were operating the press conference. 

The two people who tested positive are in stable condition at hospitals in Phoenix. They are from Chilchinbeto, AZ, which is in Navajo County. 

Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo area Indian Health Service, said extensive contact tracing is happening in Chilchinbeto to identify anyone who might have been exposed to the virus through contact with the people who tested positive so they can get tested. 

In total, she said there have been over 100 people tested in Navajo area IHS facilities and they have results from about 20% of those.

Help us create journalism for Albuquerque’s Native American population

Albuquerque is home to one of the largest urban Native populations in the country. And yet you rarely see sustained, quality journalism about this community.That changes next year.Starting in June of 2020, New Mexico In Depth will embark on a reporting project that centers Albuquerque’s Native American population thanks to Report for America, a national program that pairs host newsrooms with ambitious reporters. NMID has been selected as one of RFA’s host newsrooms in 2020-2021. NMID proposed to cover a population that intersects with many of the complex challenges confronting New Mexico. There is much reporting to do – about resilience, about creativity, about a continuing effort to empower younger generations through culture and language retention. And, yes, about the thorny problems that disproportionately affect Native communities.   New Mexico’s underserved populations deserve quality news coverage. This grant pays in part for a new reporter for this worthy project, about half of his or her salary and benefits. NMID must raise the balance.So here’s where you come in. We’re asking you to help us financially.

Do New Mexico tax breaks work? It’s hard to tell in expenditure report

New Mexico lawmakers this week looked at a report that shows how much money escapes government collections due to tax breaks approved over the years. As lawmakers and the governor continue to examine how to reform New Mexico’s tax code, it’s timely. 

Called a tax expenditure budget, the report details more than a hundred tax deductions, credits and exemptions, how long each has been on the books, why they were enacted, and whether they achieve their desired result. (Need a primer on what a tax expenditure budget is? See our special report in 2016). 

While the report is the size of a small book and would take more than an afternoon to read, lawmakers complained it didn’t have enough information, per Dan McKay at the ABQ Journal. 

And they’d have a point. There’s no data for some of the listings, and much of the report has limited usefulness for evaluation purposes. Many items have brief evaluation paragraphs with little information, or in some cases, simply the word “none.” 

More information about how government policy is made and whether it’s meeting intended goals is always better than less. 

Not only is this tax expenditure report incomplete, however, the data it contains isn’t as accessible to the public as it could be. 

For example, if you go to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, you’ll find a nifty tool: a searchable database of tax breaks for every state.

New Mexicans gather for climate protests across state

More than a thousand New Mexicans in Albuquerque and Las Cruces protested inaction by the nation’s leaders on climate change Friday, joining in a day of action that swept through cities across the globe. 

In Albuquerque roughly 1,500 climate protesters, young and old and from various backgrounds, began in Robinson Park at Central Avenue and Eighth Street where speakers motivated the crowd to fight for change and to demand no more delays. Protestors in Albuquerque turned out with signs and demands for the nation’s leaders to act on climate change Friday / Bianca Hoops for New Mexico In Depth

A sense of determinism rippled across the crowd as people urged the speakers on, including the city’s mayor, Tim Keller. 

“For the first time in decades our city has to issue ozone warnings again,” Keller said in a raspy voice to a rapt crowd. “We have to tell children not to go to soccer practices because the ozone levels are too high if you have asthma. I am not making this up. It is because of climate change.