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.