A group of 60 New Mexico medical professionals has written a letter urging officials to release nonviolent inmates to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak at the state’s prisons or county jails, which hold about 14,000 people.
The letter is signed by dozens of medical workers — including Santa Fe County Health Policy and Planning Commission member Dr. Laura Brown and La Familia Medical Center Director Dr. Wendy Johnson — who have joined with national and local advocates in calling for such measures.
The letter is addressed to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state Supreme Court, the state Corrections Department, and numerous judicial and law enforcement entities in Bernalillo County, where officials announced Monday the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Medical workers say close quarters and lack of access to soap and cleaning supplies make it impossible for prisoners to follow health officials’ recommendations aimed at blunting the new coronavirus. An outbreak inside a prison, they contend, would be deadly for inmates and correctional workers and would intensify the demand for scarce medical resources.
“The safest way to ensure that a jail or prison does not become a site for COVID-19 to spread is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated,” the letter said, urging state and local leaders to follow the lead of New York City, Cleveland and Los Angeles — cities where nonviolent offenders have been released to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which leads to COVID-19.
“The time to act is immediate,” said Leah Jo Carnine, a physician’s assistant from Albuquerque who drafted the letter with input from colleagues.
“We circulated [the letter] last week and now we are seeing the first person test positive at” the Metropolitan Detention Center, she said. “So now we are in it and we will be watching it unfold unless officials take really dramatic action.”
Although the state Law Offices of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico have advocated for similar measures, dramatic action did not appear imminent Monday.
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said public defenders and prosecutors already are working to reduce jail and prison populations by cooperating on the release of individual defendants on a case-by-case basis. He added his office has asked the Governor’s Office and the state Corrections Department “to see what mechanisms they can use” to release entire categories of inmates — such as those serving in-house parole.
Asked whether the state Supreme Court has the authority to order a mass release of inmates, Administrative Office of the Courts Director Artie Pepin wrote in an email: “District attorneys and local public defenders are best positioned to determine which jail inmates should be considered for possible release because of COVID-19 health risks.”