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Cyberattack on Bernalillo County impacts jail security system and inmates' constitutional rights

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Source New Mexico

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County has been on partial lockdown after a county-wide ransomware attack knocked out the jail’s internet, most of its data systems and all of its security cameras last week. The attack also created barriers to inmates contacting their attorneys, which is a constitutional right. Austin Fisher from Source New Mexico is investigating the cyberattack and healthcare issues at the jail. This is the first of a two part series on what is happening at the detention center.

AUSTIN FISHER: There are multiple data systems inside of the jail that have been impacted by the cyberattack. The first one that came to my attention was the jail's ability to take part in video conference proceedings with the court system. What that means is normally under what we consider to be "normal" during the pandemic, before the cyberattack, these hearings would be conducted over Zoom and the inmates and their attorneys would be able to speak privately in a breakout room or on a separate phone line. That is no longer happening. Instead, on this past Friday, the inmates had to call into their arraignment hearings by dialing out on the payphone at the jail.

Some of the other systems that have been impacted include the jail security camera system, but also the basic incident report system inside the jail. So these are things like violence, fights between inmates, incidents of rape, other incidents that normally get tracked digitally, those incidents are now being recorded on paper forms, according to the county's own attorneys. That raises a whole bunch of questions about are we getting a complete picture of everything that's happening inside of the jail while the cyberattack is still affecting these systems. This is having a really deep impact on inmates' ability to actually have assistance of counsel, assistance of an attorney, and their ability to attend hearings.

It's not something so trivial as the county not being able to process marriage licenses, although that's not trivial. These impacts aren't just limited to the day to day operations of a county, this could have serious implications for people's futures. If they're not able to make an informed decision in their court hearings that could result in them being found guilty on a charge maybe that they are innocent of, or not exercising all of their constitutional rights in the process of being a defendant.

KUNM: And what have the courts done to try to mitigate these impacts?

FISHER: After the public defender's office and the jail reached out to the court system in Bernalillo County, the state's Administrative Office of the Courts actually announced new hearing procedures for criminal cases so that hearings can continue while the county tries to get its network back up and running. So the Second Judicial District Court which handles the serious charges levied against people inside of the county jail, they made space available at their Children's Court location in Albuquerque. So the police agencies are transporting these defendants from the jail to the Children's Court and their defendants are able to communicate privately with their attorneys and appear at hearings using laptop stations in a courtroom.

KUNM: But that does not sound like it's sustainable.

FISHER: At a very basic level that's extremely expensive for those police agencies to be doing that transportation. Of course, that's a really routine thing as a part of the the criminal legal system is transporting defendants. But this is an extra step that's having to be made because of the the network outage. It's also not sustainable in terms of just being able to timely have assistance of counsel. Say that you're in a cell at the jail, you have a serious question for your attorney about your case. Well, you're going to have to go through extra steps to be taken to another location on top of all of the danger of interacting with other people during the pandemic. It's further complicating just the very basic functions of the judicial system.

KUNM: So what is the county saying about the cyberattack at the jail?

FISHER: So far, the only response that I have from Bernalillo County is asking for more time to respond. So county manager Julie Morgas Baca told me that officials needed more time to respond because they had just learned about the ransomware attack on the county. I still have not received any response to a long list of very specific questions that I sent to the county eight days ago. The county manager told me "of course we have concerns too, and we want our staff and we want the inmates to be safe and to be in a secure facility." So far, that is all I have from Bernalillo County.

UPDATE: Bernalillo County issued an update on the ransomware attack late Friday. Officials said the Metropolitan Detention Center is receiving and releasing inmates as usual. Tablets are fully operational for video calls. Those in F block are only able to do collect calls. Inmates are receiving free calls to compensate for the inconvenience.
They also said MDC is not on full lockdown, at this time, except in areas where COVID quarantines mandate limited movement.

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.