Trip Jennings The two for-profit firms that run four of New Mexico's 10 prisons often struggle to keep correctional officer jobs filled, state records show.

One in five such jobs at a Hobbs facility was vacant for much of the past 15 months, while the prison in Santa Rosa reported a vacancy rate of around 12.5 percent over the same period, according to the records.

By contract, New Mexico can penalize The GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the two firms that operate the facilities, when staffing vacancies are at 10 percent or more for 30 consecutive days. It's a threshold that appears to have been crossed multiple times at all four prisons since January 2010.

The vacancy rate at Hobbs topped the 10-percent threshold in each of the 14 months for which data was available between January 2010 and March of this year. Meanwhile, the 10-percent threshold was topped nine times over that period at Santa Rosa and six times at a Clayton facility. Like the Hobbs facility, both are run by GEO. A CCA-operated prison in Grants topped the 10 percent rate four times over the same period.

Whether to penalize the out-of-state, for-profit firms is an issue that has come up before. The question surfaced last year when state lawmakers were struggling to find ways to close a yawning state budget gap. At the time, the Legislature's budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee, estimated Gov. Bill Richardson's administration had skipped $18 million in penalties against the two firms.

One powerful lawmaker said Monday the issue is still important and the Legislature shouldn't lose sight of it.

"We'd like to follow up and perhaps do a performance group review on the private prison operators to see whether they are making excessive profits," Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, said of the Legislative Finance Committee.

Varela, the committee chairman, said he can accept a reasonable return for the prison operators, but high vacancy rates at prisons operated by the firms raise questions about how state dollars are being spent to operate the facilities.

Determining whether the companies should be penalized for high vacancy rates is an involved process, a Corrections Department spokesman said. GEO and CCA might have asked corrections officers already on the job to work overtime to address the staffing situation. If they did, the department "cannot in good faith consider that position to be vacant," spokesman Shannon McReynolds wrote in an email.

But the state doesn't know whether that happened. That would require going through shift rosters at each privately operated facility, McReynolds said in a follow-up phone interview.

"That will take a decision from the administration," McReynolds said, referring to new Corrections Secretary Lupe Martinez. "We do not have specifics on overtime. Every once in awhile we'll hear a particular facility has spent a lot on overtime."

Because of sporadic record-keeping at the facilities GEO and CCA operate, the state corrections agency couldn't verify last year how often the two firms violated the vacancy-rate provision in their contracts, if at all. As a result, the agency couldn't corroborate or refute the Legislative Finance Committee's estimate of uncollected penalties.

Joe Williams, then-corrections secretary, decided not to pursue penalizing the two companies, saying GEO and CCA were making a good-faith effort to keep the facilities staffed. The contracts give the corrections secretary discretion to waive the penalties.

If Lupe Martinez, the new corrections secretary, decides to collect penalties, it would be only for January 2011 and onward, McReynolds said. Gov. Susana Martinez took power in January and soon afterward appointed Lupe Martinez, no relation, as her corrections secretary.

According to state records, of the four privately operated prisons, Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs has struggled the most to keep correctional officers on the job. The facility's vacancy rate hovered above 20 percent for 12 of the 14 months for which there was data between January 2010 and March of this year. That includes seven consecutive months — September 2010 through March — when the vacancy rate was 25.24 percent, records show.

GEO-run Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa reported a 16.93 percent vacancy rate last July, a high point. The vacancy rate has hovered below 10 percent in five of the last seven months.

Another GEO-run facility, the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton, showed a similar trend, reporting vacancy rates higher than 10 percent for six of the seven months for which data was available between January and August 2010. Data for July 2010 was missing. As in Santa Rosa, the Clayton facility's vacancy rate has dropped in recent months.

The state's fourth privately operated prison, CCA-run New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility in Grants, reported a vacancy rate above 10 percent four times from January 2010 to July 2010, with a 16.47 percent vacancy rate reported in July. The state corrections agency did not have data for August 2010 to March 2011.

Contact Trip Jennings at 986-3050 or at tjennings@sfnewmexican.com.

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