In a move to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, the Santa Fe County jail has canceled inmate visits until further notice and will conduct enhanced infectious disease screenings for every person booked into the facility.
While there were no cases of the virus among jail inmates or employees as of Thursday, Santa Fe County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said new inmates will be required upon arrival to stay in a separate pod for seven days, where they will be monitored before being moved to the general population.
Anyone displaying symptoms of the virus during medical screenings will be placed in a quarantine pod for 14 days, Hart said.
If anyone needs to be tested for COVID-19, Hart said, the plan is for the Department of Health to administer the test at the jail instead of a hospital.
The jail has also undergone a deep cleaning.
“What we have done so far is aggressive environmental cleaning, which is all high-touch areas being wiped down with bleach frequently,” Hart said.
While phone calls between inmates and friends and loved ones will continue as normal, the county is going to speed up its plan to begin its video visitation program.
“If everything runs smoothly with what we want to set up, this will happen on April the first,” Hart said.
State prisons are also making changes to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, according to a statement issued Thursday by the Corrections Department.
“Effective immediately, all contact visitation is suspended through the end of April 2020,” department spokesman Eric Harrison said in an email. “Non-contact visitation for immediate family members will be permitted to all eligible inmates as available. … As a result of this change, [the Corrections Department] will also be increasing inmate access to phones as well as working with our vendors to discuss bringing video visits to the facilities.”
Volunteer activities in state prisons, including events, clubs and banquets, are suspended through the end of April, according to Harrison.
Other parts of the state’s criminal justice system were scrambling Thursday to come up with ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura of the state Supreme Court has directed courts to limit the number of potential jurors during jury selection — which sometimes number as many as 100 — to no more than 25 per room.
But a spokeswoman for the courts said Thursday that judges have been directed to use the number 25 as a guideline for limiting the number of people in a courtroom at any time, using their own discretion.
On Thursday, state Judicial District Court Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer met with prosecutors and public defenders to go over the directives Nakamura issued late Wednesday.
- Directing jurors who have traveled to areas where there are high concentrations of the virus to contact the court before reporting for duty. Jurors who are ill will be sent home.
- Postponement of jury trials in civil cases that have not begun, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
- Using technology to conduct court proceedings in criminal cases in a way that minimizes contact among people in the courtroom.
- Criminal proceedings — which have more sensitive timelines because they often involve people who are in custody — will continue, but the number of inmates who will be transported from jails to courthouses for nonessential hearings will be limited.
Sommer said she was working with wardens from the Santa Fe and Rio Arriba county jails to develop a system that would allow public defenders and private attorneys to meet with inmates via video conferencing rather than having to visit jail.
She said the details were still being worked out because the equipment and rooms used for video arraignments is in high demand even under normal circumstances.
“It’s really serious. … This is a high-risk population,” Sommer said.
Sommer said she planned to meet Friday with more court and jail officials to figure out more ways to minimize human contact in hearings that can’t be postponed.
“I’m really concerned that we can’t do a little,” she said. “We have to do all of it or it’s not going to work. … We are looking at a three-month window of critical time. Could be less, could be more.”
Sommer said out-of-state travel is suspended for judicial employees and judges, adding that she couldn’t tell noncourt employees whether they can travel but that they should use their own judgment.
The New Mexican’s Amanda Martinez contributed to this report.