NM Prisons in the Age of COVID-19
The prison in Otero County, New Mexico consists of 3 detention centers that hold county prisoners, state prisoners, and immigrants detained for crossing the border who are held in the ICE Detention Center. It is also one of three prisons in the nation with the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases, and the numbers keep rising.
The June 24 West Side Democrats meeting focused on the horrible conditions of NM prisons and the reasons that the coronavirus pandemic has hit New Mexico facilities so hard. The event featured community leaders who are at the forefront of battling the injustices behind bars, spurred on even more now that COVID-19 positive cases have created one of the hottest spots in the country since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. in March.
Sylvia Johnson, Creative and Communications Director for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, reported on the latest statistics in the Otero prison facility. On the day of the presentation, there were 847 positive cases, and two days later there were 855 positive cases. News reports say 3 have died. Johnson said there were 200 additional cases in just three days. She added that the lack of a coordinated effort on tracking the numbers makes it “hard to say what is really going on there.”
She and others on the panel spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham pleading for her to release prisoners early due to a predictable public health crisis in light of the conditions that prisoners must endure. There are no opportunities for social distancing because many of the prisoners sleep on cots 2-3 feet away from each other, are not afforded masks, and often have no way to practice good hygiene. Unfortunately, the Governor has only released a handful of prisoners as a result of the pandemic.
Selinda Guerrero who heads Millions for Prisoners, and who has been an outspoken voice against the prison industrial complex, reported on the conditions of the jail in Torrance County, and how a majority of those incarcerated are locked up due to slight violations in their probation.
For more from Guerrero, click here: https://youtu.be/Yj7FVEPvxfw
Others on the panel spoke about the practice that the state retirement program, PERA, invests in the private companies who own many of the detention facilities in New Mexico – a practice that they say needs to end. New Mexico’s use of private prisons exceeds that of any other state in the country. According to the Sentencing Project, New Mexico has experienced a 72% increase in its private prison population since 2000, and the American Civil Liberties Union argues that private prisons fuel mass incarceration since they operate on a for-profit basis.
Matthew Coyte, a lawyer with the NM Criminal Defense Lawyers Association which also sued Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to release more prisoners, argues that COVID-19 has served to highlight a system that needs to be decimated at the core.
For more from Coyte, click here: https://youtu.be/tcO8nKukpYw
Johnson added that prisoners are often quarantined by being put into solitary confinement – a practice typically reserved for punishing prisoners for bad behavior. She argues why someone who is symptomatic would want to report it if they are punished and don’t get the proper medical care.
And all indications are that COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. “We need to get people released,” Johnson said. “I can’t sleep at night knowing there are human beings in there in danger and we can’t get them out.”