Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has been under increasing pressure from advocates to order the release of some nonviolent inmates to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons and jails, will do so, a spokesman for her office said in an email Thursday.

The governor’s administration is working on the effort, “and when there is a more formal plan to be executed you will know about it,” spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said. “The governor wants to find a way to get it done, and it will be done.”

Stelnicki said he could not provide a timeline for when the governor might take action, only that it would be “soon.”

There are about 14,000 people incarcerated in New Mexico, including about 7,000 in state prisons.

Numerous advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, along with the state Law Offices of the Public Defender have been calling for dramatic decreases in inmate populations following reports that COVID-19 is spreading faster among inmates in New York’s Rikers Island jail than anywhere else in the world.

Those calling for the release of inmates in New Mexico cite their close quarters and lack of access to soap and cleaning products, and they say an outbreak in a prison or jail could be deadly for inmates and employees, and put undue pressure on community health care resources.

Lalita Moskowitz, an attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, called Stelnicki’s comment “great news.”

But Moskowitz emphasized that in order for a reduction in the inmate population to be effective, it needs to be done fast.

“Once somebody has tested positive in a facility, it’s almost too late,” she said. “... It spreads so quickly.”

A detainee at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, which holds about 1,300 inmates, tested positive for COVID-19 on March 29, and the jail went on lockdown Thursday to allow the state Department of Health to test an additional 80 inmates, according to a news release. The inmate who tested positive is quarantined alone in a cell “inside a negative pressure room,” according to the statement, and four other inmates are in quarantine because they had close contact with him or were experiencing symptoms.

Another 73 inmates are isolated in two separate housing units and are being tested for the illness, and 17 staff members are being tested, the release said.



The ACLU filed a petition Thursday in state District Court in Santa Fe seeking release of a medically fragile mother of three who is being held at the Santa Fe County jail. The woman had been represented by public defender Jennifer Burrill, who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Burrill has been pushing for inmates to be prioritized for testing and for nonviolent inmates to be released to reduce their chances of contracting the virus.

“I’m thrilled [the governor] is realizing that people in custody are still members of our community and are worth protecting and representing,” Burrill said.

Eric Harrison, a spokesman for the New Mexico Corrections Department, said Thursday only two state prisoners have been tested for the virus — a woman in the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants and a recent transfer from the Sandoval County jail; both test results were negative.

Harrison said that with the governor’s support, the department is working to come up with a plan “to implement the early release of certain groups of inmates.”

The department is working to ensure such a release would keep public safety in mind, he added.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, in response to an earlier question about his thoughts on possible inmate releases amid the pandemic, issued a statement through his spokesman.

“Officials must immediately conduct a threat assessment on every individual case to ensure domestic violence and child abuse is not inflicted upon families during this health emergency,” Balderas said. “All victim stakeholders must be involved to ensure public health and public safety are strengthened in New Mexico.”

Burrill and Moskowitz said there are a number of approaches the governor could take to reduce inmate numbers, including ordering the release of prisoners nearing parole or ordering the release of jail inmates held on nonviolent misdemeanor charges, such as drug possession.

Moskowitz said a New Mexico state statute enacted in 1889 allows for the release of inmates in cases of “pestilence or contagious sickness.”

According to the ACLU, state and local court systems in 14 states already have begun taking steps to limit their inmate populations.

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(28) comments

Mike Sauber

While I have no connection with prison and jails, I have educated myself and I want to thank the Governor for doing this. We shouldn't have needed a pandemic to do this. Putting money into education and social programs rather than incarceration is wise. Keep up using logic and compassion, a rare thing these days.

Kirsti Lynn

First and foremost thank you Governor Lujan Grisham for the recognition that those that are incarcerated are humans too. I am a spouse of an inmate that is currently incarcerated and due to get out in July he suffers with chronic asthma he is also in a level 1 facility meaning he started from a level 3-2-1 he has no disciplinary write ups and takes ever class offered to better his self. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone on the comments and those that are against letting them out you can’t sit there acting like you never did anything wrong we all have some just got caught. Not all inmates are bad people and the ones that are being considered early release are those that are non violent offenders included they had issues with drugs, alcohol, embezzlement they didn’t hurt physically hurt a child or a person in the community. Those that have received charges for drugs are also sentenced for 7 years verses those that actually commit a violent crime they get a weekend, 60 days-2 years the most and are out here walking the community? Those are the ones that get released? There is no reason to keep non violent offenders who are due to be released locked up during this COVID-19. If it gets transmitted into the facility than what? The facility doesn’t have the proper health as people out here do. It’s worse in the prison because not everything is sanitized. You have to purchase your own hygiene and find ways to protect your self with limit options. My spouse had to make his own disinfecting spray out of soap and water which he takes it to the phones to spray off yet he gets that confiscated? What are you suppose to do? Staff leaves at 4 many inmates use the phones after they get out of work who is left to sanitize the phones? Many MDC inmates were released due to the virus what about the non violent offenders in prison? My spouse has done his time and also has rehabilitated his self prior to is conviction and during his incarceration some do better themselves. Prior to his conviction he was always the one to help those that needed it he wasn’t bad he would be the one to pull over and help a person who is stranded or buy food for those in need. People are so quick to judge and say don’t let them out they are criminals well you might as well put your self in that category for discrimination and your probably a jerk for that matter. Unless you’ve lived a life when your loved one is in the inside and his family waits for him or her on the outside you don’t know. I really think that they should be getting released sooner than later the numbers are rising so quick and spreading to the point now we have to wear a mask out in public. Inmates are people too they have family and loved ones who they are important too. How would you feel if your loved one spouse, son, daughter, father, mother etc was incarcerated? Let’s help the entire community and release those non violent offenders out of prison not only jails. Many Inmates in a level Central New Mexico Prison facility are close to being released if they didn’t make progress during their incarceration they wouldn’t be a level one. If people are so worried than why not put an ankle monitor until their ERD. Those are our tax dollars going towards the facility that should be more a rehabilitation into society center. They need to be acknowledged also because when you don’t you lose hope and the want to continue thriving.

Jarratt Applewhite

It is possible, but highly unlikely that the places these offenders were housed would not become CV vectors that would stretch limited healthcare resources and increase community spread. Thank goodness we have a leader who is trying to get ahead of this plague instead of viewing it some other governors do -- in the rear view mirror.

Joseph Tafoya

Releasing criminals is a bad idea. If you read today's paper (03-APR-2020; page A10) you know the criminals are already at work. They are going to become more emboldened to take advantage of stores and homes not being occupied day or night. They need to feed their habits and the only way they know is to prey amongst the innocent public trying to avoid CONVI-19. Big R had seven guns stolen from their store and incarcerated criminals haven't even been released yet. And, you want to add to that?

Bonnie Cox

My car has been broken into twice during the last three months. Of course, that is non-violent.

Meredith Watten-Jaramillo

Thank you Governor Lujan-Grisham for agreeing to tackle the problem of over-crowded jails and prisons in NM before the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms our state’s healthcare agencies.

By releasing non-violent inmates and decreasing the incarcerated’s population density now you will be safeguarding critical care beds in our community hospitals for our general population, and will reduce viral exposure to guards accompanying inmates to hospitals to monitor them 24/7. As wards of the state, inmates are guaranteed healthcare. Healthcare workers in jails and prisons are not prepared or equipped to provide critical care and indeed they send many medical issues into our emergency rooms as it is.

These are unusual times requiring that our political leaders think outside the box ...including thinking through the negative consequences of inaction.

Chris Mechels

It is great that these prisoners will be released, as the prisons are a very dangerous place for Covid. Part of the problem is the poorly trained, poorly paid, staff which has a very high turnover. In the best of times, a poorly run system, with no effective oversight, and little transparency. From personal experience with IPRA requests, I can tell you that getting information from these folks is very difficult.

At some point, the Governor needs to address the problems in the NM prisons and jails, as she has been very irresponsible in that area, but for right now, release as many as possible.

Dan Chase

These criminals are a virus themselves...everywhere they go they cause harm but let’s release them? You think they will stay home? They will get back on their favorite drug and keep law enforcement officers busy as they reoffend so in all actuality they will cause others harm and place us all at risk! Keep them in they chose that place to stay.

Connie Lopez

Dan Chase: now is your time to leave NM. Quick, go.

Sojourner of Truth

Haters gonna hate. But you do realize that over 90% of all inmates are eventually released back to their communities, so this plan should not come as a shock to you.

Emily Koyama

Interesting that the forum moderator allows "Sojourner of Truth" and other made up identities to post, yet deletes my post, as a verified online account holder and valid profile.

Guy Gambill

And have you considered at all that there are also thousands of people who work in the system who go home everyday after work carrying the virus with them? This country has had enough of your kind of unthinking "wisdom". We've been very stupid in this country....we couldn't have done worse than the "War on Drugs". Time to stop being stupid.

Patty White

Interesting, I wonder why people who doesn't know someone would say nothing but negative things about them. Research says, that it's because that is what they would do. So Dan, it looks to me like your the real criminal. All you self-righteous hypocrites the Lord will take care of you.

Brad Doubles

Seal off the jails NOW. Keep all prisoners in lockup where they belong. If people want them let out, then they should volunteer to have all of these bad apples stay in their own homes with their kids and spouses

Letting these ppl out to roam around and catch a virus that they currently DO NOT HAVE is insane. Not to mention they are convicted dangerous criminals.

Let them rot in jail where they belong. If they perish, their victims won't lose any sleep over it...

Connie Lopez

Brad Doubles, now is your time to leave NM. Quick, go.

Brad Doubles

Maybe folks like Constance and truthboy should go. Its obvious you have no grasp of reality. NM is considered at the bottom of most "positive" lists and at the top of all the negative ones. Crime and a poorly educated populace is the root of most of this.

Our State prisons and jails are filled with folks who for whatever reason, choose not to follow the rule of law and live like decent, contributing members of society. Whether its a child molesting priest, a toddler murdering, drug addict mom or a drug addicted low iq deadbeat dad...they all made a choice. They can stay incarcerated or move in with folks like you. It's really that simple. Our recidivism rate is so high, you should all be jumping over yourselves volunteering to "fix" these folks with your rainbow and unicorn ideas.

Maybe, just maybe....its people who think like you that are the real problem in NM??

Guy Gambill

[beam]

Sojourner of Truth

Convicted dangerous criminals? Where on earth do you get your data? The vast majority of inmates are nonviolent offenders with drug, alcohol and mental problems. If we treated the real problems rather than just warehousing humans, the jails would be empty.

Guy Gambill

Don't waste your time trying to reason with people who don't care about factual bases to arguments.

Brad Doubles

Its only in the mind of a liberal using semantic platitudes to say the folks in hail ate not dangerous. They ALL BROKE THE LAW. I care not wheyher they are drug addicts, poor, uneducated, mentally ill pr what ever excuse you have for them. They f#%&ed up. OWN IT!

Brad Doubles

I have zero problem with facts...Truth is, some people, you just can't reach...

Kirsti Lynn

Agree!

Renee Quintana

Sojourner of truth I totally agree with you about the imates and I think if they received the proper help they needed they wouldn't be in jail

Renee Quintana

Brad Doubles not all people that are in jail or prison are bad people. Clearly you have no loved ones close to you that are locked up. As a wife of an inmate in jail over misdemeanor charges with no court dates until the end of June I'm glad they are planning to release inmates, it's sad that there are people out there that think and speak like you do about these inmates, you don't know their situation so to discriminate and presume all of them bad and guilty just shows what our world has become. Who are you to place judgment on these people we are all human and we all have made mistakes in life so maybe you should remember that.

Nahum Ward-Lev

Thank you Governor Lujan Grisham -- we need you to do this now. Glad you are listening and will be acting to protect all lives. Now what we need is for ICE to do the same with detention centers.

Connie Lopez

Agree. This Gov deserves to be pictured Time magazine.

Sojourner of Truth

Totally agree. We need to ban private prisons and immigrant detention facilities from New Mexico. Profiting from human bondage is immoral and only lines the pockets of greedy Wall Street hedge fund managers.

Kirsti Lynn

Yes we need to come as a community all lives matter.

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