COVID-19 spreads most easily in confined spaces with lots of people, so at least a dozen states have released hundreds or thousands of prisoners early to reduce outbreaks in incarcerated populations. In New Mexico’s largest state prison in Otero County, about 80% of inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. In April, the governor announced that some prisoners would be released to stem the spread of COVID-19, but the state prisoners still in Otero County are not eligible for release because they have a sex offense on their record. Journalist Jeff Proctor with the Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth published a report last week about the coronavirus outbreak in the Otero County Detention Center. He spoke to KUNM’s Kaveh Mowahed about why only 71 inmates have been released statewide, and why none of them were in Otero County.
JEFF PROCTOR: The executive order signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 6 lays out a really restrictive set of criteria. You have to be within 30 days of your projected release date. You have to have a parole plan. There are a number of offenses that if you are currently serving a sentence for you're automatically exempted from, and then there's the sex offender category. Anybody who not just is serving now, but has at any time in their past been convicted of a state sex offense is exempt - not allowed - to be released early. And sort of what my reporting focused on, where Otero is concerned, this time around every state inmate in that prison facility does have a sex offense at some point in their history on their record.
KUNM: Your recent reporting surfaced that 39 inmates were transferred from Otero County to another facility after the coronavirus outbreak started. These were the only inmates without sex offenses on their record.
PROCTOR: What we learned about the transfers out was they took all of the non- sex offenders, and they transferred them up to the State Pen in Santa Fe on or about May 20, which is a few days after you began to have state inmates testing positive for the coronavirus. Now, the other piece of that were the transfers in, which I think is still an area of all of this that I'm interested in exploring further that hasn't been answered completely, in terms of the transfers into the Otero County prison facility once they knew there was virus in the building.
KUNM: We're seeing rising coronavirus cases here in New Mexico, including a few new cases in the state prison in Los Lunas, and nearly three dozen now in a federal detention facility in Torrance County. Do you think we're going to see major outbreaks in other detention facilities like we're seeing in Otero County?
PROCTOR: What we've seen nationally is that in incarcerated settings once you get one or two cases, if you test aggressively and across the board and asymptomatic folks, what you find is a lot of coronavirus. It seems like we are certainly in some stage of that movie playing out in New Mexico.
KUNM: [On June 30] New Mexico In Depth published your report on the governor's pardoning of 19 people last week. Can you clarify for our listeners, what a pardon does and doesn't do and how it's different from COVID-related prisoner releases?
PROCTOR: Yeah, and I appreciate you asking that. What the executive order lays out is that the Corrections Department is to identify folks who meet the really strict criteria for early release. Each of those people is granted executive clemency and then released from the facilities on parole. So that doesn't mean that the conviction has been wiped from your record. It doesn't mean that you no longer owe some obligation to the state. A pardon is offered almost exclusively to people who have already served their sentences and have been released for quite some time. And what the pardon does, is it actually removes the conviction from someone's record. One really important thing for listeners, I think, is that when you look at the criteria for early release under the executive order, it lists a number of offenses. Aggrivated DWI, domestic abuse, battery on a police officer, any crime that contains or includes a firearm enhancement. Those criteria for exemption in the executive order, are people currently serving on those charges. And when it comes to sex offenders, it's much more expansive. It's anyone who's ever gotten a sex offense conviction in their past. So that could include somebody who's serving right now, on a drug possession charge, who's got a 30-year-old sex offense on their record that they already paid their debt to society for.