KUNM

New Mexico Corrections Department

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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.

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State lawmakers just passed restrictions on solitary confinement, the first of their kind in the state. If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs them into law, New Mexico prisons and jails will have rules about who they can isolate. 

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Nationally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement held 42,000 people in custody on average on any given day last year. People leaving ICE detention often say conditions were bad, and they were abused or didn’t get enough to eat. Some New Mexico lawmakers are carrying a bill that might create a window into ICE facilities here.

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When people are behind bars, the government is responsible for their health care. That’s in the U.S. Constitution. Anything less is considered cruel and unusual punishment. But New Mexico has a history of struggling to meet that obligation. Lawsuits about deaths and permanent health damage pile up.

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For hundreds of people in New Mexico, getting out of jail or prison hinges on whether there’s a bed in a halfway house, a slot in a treatment program or space in a mental health facility. Until a spot opens up, they remain behind bars, and it costs taxpayers thousands of extra dollars while they wait.

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The use of solitary confinement on mentally ill inmates sparked expensive lawsuits in New Mexico in the last couple of years. Doña Ana County paid Stephen Slevin millions of dollars in 2013 after he spent almost two years in solitary confinement. A bill making its way through this legislative session could outlaw such lengthy stays in isolation.