Inmates across the country fear for their lives as the coronavirus sweeps through overpopulated jails and prisons. People incarcerated in New Mexico say they’re not getting enough hygiene products, space to distance from one another or good information about potential spread behind the walls. Facilities have done very little testing, and the Corrections Department has been slow to follow through on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 6 order to release non-violent offenders who have less than a month left on their sentences. As of April 29, just 29 people had been discharged from state prisons, despite a 2019 study that identified ten times that number of people who could be immediately released into community corrections programs.
Inmate Andrew Miller, 47, lives in a dormitory-style unit with about 45 other men at the Central New Mexico prison in Los Lunas.
He’s said since the coronavirus hit, the prison has cut many peoples’ jobs. That means no cash for hygiene products, which he says they only give out for free to the geriatric unit.
"But for us over here, they don’t give out soap, they don’t give out anything but a roll of toilet paper on Saturdays," Miller said. "That’s all they get for a hygiene kit here."
KUNM spoke with Miller on the day he said the prison saw its first COVID scare. He said it was an older guy, and correctional officers didn’t say much about what was happening. "We just know that the ambulance came and got him. They had all their protective gear on. They put him in a plastic suit, and they took him out."
Afterward, he said prisoners were told they had to eat meals in their pods and stay there except to use the restroom. He said a guard later came around to explain the safety precautions, and inmates expressed nervousness at their closely confined living conditions.
"One of the guys in the pod mentioned, 'Well, if that’s the case, well, we’re very close to each other—what do you think about that?' " Miller recalled. "And he was literally told, ‘Listen, I’m not gonna argue with you. If you don’t like it, we’re just gonna lock you up [in segregation] and you can be socially distanced as far as you want.’ "
KUNM spoke to Miller on April 22. A week later, an advocate who keeps in touch with inmates there told KUNM that he’d been punished for speaking about the conditions there. She said he’d had privileges like phone calls taken away and was put into solitary confinement.
"Yeah, that’s classic Department of Corrections management," state Rep. Moe Maestas told KUNM. "The Department of Corrections is in the dark ages."
He said retaliation is commonplace behind the walls, and "the current administration must put an end to it immediately."
Maestas said the Corrections Department should give everyone free soap, even doubling the amount during the pandemic, and he hopes Gov. Lujan Grisham will release more prisoners, especially older folks who are more susceptible to the virus.
"I don’t think this administration has fully wrapped its arms around the fact that [for] non-violent offenders serving lengthy sentences, letting them out six months early is not a threat to public safety," said Maestas.
The Corrections Department can release prisoners who are within 12 months of parole eligibility and not locked up for gun-related felonies into community settings. Jeff Proctor, a journalist with the Santa Fe Reporter and NM In Depth, said there’s a broad range of options for that kind of release.
"That could be anything from an in-patient rehab facility to a halfway-house to being released to a family member," Proctor said, "sometimes with the supervision of an electronic ankle monitor, sometimes not."
Each year, the New Mexico Sentencing Commission does a point-in-time study to tally how many inmates are eligible for community release. They exclude a whole range of violent offenders, sex offenders, and even people who are in for DWI. "And what this year’s analysis found was that there were 294 people, even with these really restrictive kind of exclusions, who could be released immediately," Proctor said.
Civil rights advocates brought the Sentencing Commission report to Gov. Lujan Grisham’s attention very early on in the pandemic, Proctor reported for NM In Depth. In response to KUNM’s interview request this week, her spokesperson said in an email that “a safe and orderly reduction of the population is ongoing” for inmates who have less than 30 days on their sentence and meet more stringent criteria outlined by the governor's April 6 order.
Prisons across the U.S. that have done mass COVID testing have found very high percentages of inmates testing positive, most of them asymptomatic. As of Wednesday, the New Mexico Corrections Department said only eight state prison inmates had been tested—seven negative with one pending—and 32 staff tested, with one positive diagnosis. These numbers do not include people in county jails.
The governor has said she wants to test every New Mexican for COVID-19. In his reporting, Proctor asked her directly about this discrepancy, pointing out that she doesn’t have a legal obligation to ensure the health care of the general population.
"However, the 6700 people she is currently holding in cages, there are some constitutional rights that attach in terms of ensuring peoples’ health care," said Proctor. "And the answer I got is they are aware of that obligation, and they’re doing the best they can."
As for Andrew Miller in the Los Lunas prison, he said he fears the state will let prisoners die before they do anything to seriously address the pandemic.
"I want people to know that, look, at the end of the day, people do understand that they committed a crime. However, we are actually real people," said Miller. "We’re still in America, and in America we do still have some freedoms. One of them is, we don’t torture our prisoners. So since we don’t torture our prisoners, we should take time to figure out how to protect them."
KUNM asked the Corrections Department about the retaliation against Miller. They refused to give an interview with Sec. Alisha Tafoya Lucero, but said they’ll look into Miller's case.
Support for KUNM's public health coverage provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and listeners like you.