A legislative report on the New Mexico Corrections Department paints a grim picture of how the coronavirus pandemic has played out inside state prisons over the past year.
New Mexico prisons have seen much higher rates of infection and death during the pandemic than most other state prison systems, according to the Legislative Finance Committee report, and COVID-19 cases were 40 percent more likely to be fatal in a New Mexico prison compared with the U.S. prison system as a whole.
“COVID-19 infection has been so widespread throughout the state’s prison system that an inmate in New Mexico was more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than the national average,” says the report, part of the committee’s assessment of the Corrections Department for the third quarter of fiscal year 2021.
COVID-19 has killed twenty-eight inmates across the state’s 11-prison system, which held an average of 5,876 inmates in April, Corrections Department and committee data shows.
A virus update from the state Department of Health on Friday showed 2,997 state prison inmates have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. An additional 1,703 infections have been confirmed among federal prisoners held in New Mexico facilities.
The committee’s quarterly report card for the department says that amounts to a death rate of 1 in 220 inmates, compared to a national inmate death rate of 1 in 501, putting New Mexico second in the nation.
The report says the disease has “ravaged” the state’s prison population, nearly half of whom have contracted the virus.
The mission of the interim Legislative Finance Committee is to provide state lawmakers with objective fiscal and public policy analyses. It also audits the performance of state agencies and political subdivisions.
State Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero declined a request for an interview on the report and COVID-19 rates in prisons.
Department spokesman Eric Harrison, asked whether Tafoya Lucero agreed with the report’s findings, wrote in an email, “I will not speculate as to the opinion of the [Legislative Finance Committee] analyst.”
But, Harrison wrote, agencies and organizations listed as data sources in the report — which include the Corrections Department, the Legislative Finance Committee, a nonprofit online journalism organization called The Marshall Project and a nonprofit think tank called the Prison Policy Initiative — “stopped requesting updates in early June so any numbers reflected on their current reports are out of date at this time.”
“To be clear, the New Mexico Corrections Department has not had an inmate death in any of our 11 prison facilities due to COVID-19 since February 7th of 2021,” Harrison wrote. “The last inmate hospitalization due to COVID-19 occurred on May 7th, 2021. … Since mid-May, NMCD has not had a single day where our inmate positive case count for all 11 prison facilities surpassed a cumulative total of 5.”
Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey said the report, provided to lawmakers in late June, reflects statistics through the end of March.
The state’s vaccine rollout results in prisons are “somewhat encouraging,” according to the report — which says New Mexico ranks fourth out of 36 states with available data for vaccinations among corrections staff.
But unfortunately, the report says, the New Mexico Corrections Department’s “vaccination rate among inmates lags behind the national average.”
New Mexico ranked 31 out of 48 states in vaccinating inmates at the time of the report, having vaccinated about 51 percent of prisoners, compared to about
55 percent of inmates vaccinated nationwide.
The numbers have increased since then.
As of Wednesday, Harrison wrote, 84 percent of facility staff and 90 percent of inmates had received vaccines.
“The Agency has and will continue to work diligently to protect the facility staff and inmate populations through preventive measures, dedication to getting staff and inmates vaccinated, and testing,” Harrison wrote.
“At no point has our agency taken our foot off the gas as we continue to combat this virus,” he added. “While in-person visitation and volunteer services have resumed for vaccinated visitors and volunteers, strict policies regarding use of [personal protective equipment], sanitation, screening and testing remain in place.”