County jails across New Mexico are "under siege" as they grapple with staffing shortages amid a growing inmate population that is largely unvaccinated — coupled with a 31 percent spike in COVID-19 infections since the end of July.
Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico Counties, an association of the state's 33 county governments, told lawmakers Wednesday the situation at detention facilities is "really scary" from both safety and security perspectives.
"We have many, many facilities that are understaffed [and] have vacancies," she said, adding the average vacancy rate in the state is almost 23 percent.
"There are five counties that have more than a 30 percent vacancy rate. We have one county [Curry] that has almost a 45 percent vacancy rate. This is a crisis," she said. "We have increasing [inmate] populations, and we have inadequate staff."
The Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility is among the jails in the state with the highest vacancy rates. Spokeswoman Carmelina Hart wrote in an email 66 of 207 available positions are vacant. That's a nearly 32 percent vacancy rate.
"Providing care and safety in our facility is a priority," she wrote. "We are able to accomplish this by increasing opportunities for staff to work overtime and modifying internal operation and schedules in response to fluctuations in the number inmates. In addition, Santa Fe County has continued to work with the Courts to provide video hearings, which were implemented in 2020 as a COVID safe practice. This reduces the transport and other burdens associated with in-person hearings."
The county's detention facility currently has 371 inmates. In 2020, the average was 348 inmates. So far this year, the average is 378 inmates.
The trend in Santa Fe County mirrors what's happening statewide.
In May 2020, county jails had 3,853 inmates in their custody. On Tuesday, the number of inmates in county jails had climbed to 5,280 — a 37 percent jump.
"That's an incredible increase," Philips said. "The increase in population, unfortunately, is also something that is happening while we are experiencing the effects of the delta variant. … It has made a tremendous impact on our county jails."
During the first 16 months of the pandemic, from March 2020 to July, there were 3,317 COVID-19 cases identified in county detention facilities, or an average of 211 cases per month, Philips said.
"While we've had some outbreaks, detention facilities, I think, have done a really good job of keeping the cases that come in contained to a housing unit or a pod and not having these facility-wide," she said. "We've had a couple, but for the most part, considering how many cases there are, I think our detention facilities have done an excellent job of containing the cases that they have."
But the more contagious delta variant fueled a surge, Philips said. From July 21 through Monday, there were 551 cases of COVID-19 identified in detention facilities.
"That is a 31 percent increase in the cases being identified in our detention facilities," Philips said.
The surge in cases comes as jails deal with staffing shortages.
Another of the five facilities with a vacancy rate of more than 30 percent is the Colfax County Vigil-Maldonado Detention Center in Raton.
"Any time you have a staffing shortage, it affects every aspect of operations," jail Administrator Monte Gore said. "Everything from people taking time off, vacation time, to basically getting duties performed in the way that they need to be performed."
Stephen Montoya, a spokesman for Sandoval County, which has a vacancy rate of 35 percent, or 20 vacant positions, said the problem mirrors what's happening in other industries.
"It's been tough for every business, not just the detention center," he said. "I mean, if you go pretty much down the street and look at even McDonald's or even Sonic … everyone has 'Help Wanted' signs out right now. So, it's basically a sign of the times."
Despite the large number of vacancies, Sandoval County has managed to keep its detention facility in Bernalillo operational, Montoya said.
"Right now, operations are still up to par," he said. "We have enough detention center employees that things are still running. We would like to have a cushion of having more people, of course, and we've done our best to put some promo videos out trying to promote the detention center to see if people want to come on board."
Gore suspects many people are still collecting unemployment insurance benefits and opting not to find a job.
"Everybody is looking for workers," he said. "Like with any situation, there's multiple pieces to the pie, but I think that there's still a lot of benefits out there for folks to remain on unemployment, and I think one of the things that employers are going to have to really consider moving forward is upping salaries to be more competitive."
While the Colfax County jail has one of the highest vacancy rates at 35 percent, it also has one of the highest rates of staff who are fully vaccinated at 86 percent.
Statewide, just over 61 percent of detention facility employees are vaccinated — significantly below New Mexico's overall vaccination rate of 70.5 percent among adults.
Though they fluctuate as the population of inmates changes, vaccination rates among detainees are much further behind at less than 40 percent, even though detention facilities are making vaccines against COVID-19 available.
"Beginning in May when vaccinations were available for detainees … the initial push was to use the [single dose] Johnson & Johnson vaccine so that there could be one vaccination and not the need to follow up with this population," Philips said. "Since May, county detention facilities have hosted 136 vaccination clinics. In addition to that, many counties are providing vaccinations on request or on an ongoing basis."
More than 4,000 people in custody have received the vaccine through a detention facility since that time, she said.
At the onset of the pandemic, county governments worked with court officials and other stakeholders to reduce the number of inmates by limiting arrests and restricting the movement of detainees by holding remote proceedings.
Philips said the arrival of the delta variant coincided with the state Supreme Court's decision to resume in-person proceedings. At the same time, the number of COVID-19 infections started to go up, as did vacancy rates.
"As I said, I think this is a crisis," Philips told lawmakers. "It's unprecedented, certainly, in my tenure with [New Mexico] Counties. This kind of broad statewide vacancy rate among detention staff is not something that we've experienced before."
In a telephone interview, Philips said she wanted lawmakers to understand that county jails "are working under extremely difficult circumstances."
"People should know that jails are under siege right now, and the delta [variant] has been a game changer," she said. "I mean, just the fact that in the last two months, the number of COVID cases that we're identifying has increased by over 30 percent is very, very worrisome."