Protesters Demand Prisoners' Release, Calling Incarceration A Death Sentence During Pandemic
UPDATED Tuesday, April 6, 1p: Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an order on Monday, April 6, directing the New Mexico Corrections Department to compile a list of inmates eligible for early release, in order to reduce incarcerated populations and slow the spread of coronavirus. To be eligible for release, prisoners must have a parole plan and a release date less than 30 days away, and they cannot be serving time for domestic abuse, sex offenses or felony DWI.
The order comes days after dozens of people organized COVID-safe car rallies Friday in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, calling on the governor and sheriff’s departments to release people from prisons, jails and ICE detention centers.
Protesters socially distanced themselves inside their cars, some wearing masks, some hanging signs from car windows, everyone honking and chanting “bring them home” in front of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department in Albuquerque on Friday, April 3.
Coronavirus can spread quickly in crowded detention centers with limited space for social distancing. There are about 18,000 people behind bars in New Mexico, according to the Prison Policy Institute.
Justin Allen, who was formerly incarcerated, said he lived through a MERSA outbreak in a New Mexico prison, when he and other inmates suffered open sores and some faced amputations linked to serious MERSA infections.
"I know what it’s like to deal with a disease inside there," said Allen. "It’s horrible, not knowing when it’s going away or if it’s going away." He said elders who are most at risk for coronavirus complications should be immediately released.
At a press conference on Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state plans to release 40 non-high-risk offenders who are up for parole a month early. It's unclear from which facilities they'll be released.
Organizers of Friday’s demonstrations said 40 people is not enough.
“Holding people during a pandemic is a death sentence," said Stephonae Nelson with Millions For Prisoners, "and in the state of New Mexico the death penalty is not legal, so it should not be under these conditions either.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has been calling for the release of incarcerated people, as well as for jails and prisons to publicize comprehensive plans for how they will keep inmates and staff safe during the pandemic.
The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center announced on March 26 that it had begun releasing prisoners, starting with a list of 86 medically vulnerable inmates and disqualifying 46 who were considered ineligible for release due to violent charges.
On April 2, the MDC announced it was on lockdown while the New Mexico Department of Health tested about 80 inmates for COVID-19. MDC officials said they learned about one inmate's positive diagnosis for coronavirus on March 29, a couple days after a spokesperson told KUNM in an interview that keeping inmates six feet away from each other was impossible in much of the facility.
It remains to be seen if the hundreds of people detained for immigration offenses in ICE facilities will be eligible for release in New Mexico.
KUNM's Hannah Colton contributed to this story.