When COVID-19 began ravaging federal prisons in New Mexico earlier this year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham chastised the federal government, saying private companies hired to run the facilities weren’t doing enough to quell the spread of the illness.
Throughout most of the spring and summer, state-run prisons seemed to be doing a better job of beating back the virus. The number of state prisoners who tested positive for the novel coronavirus remained low.
In recent weeks, however, the virus has made inroads in all 11 state prisons from Roswell to Grants, infecting hundreds of inmates and staff.
Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison said the outbreaks were inevitable, given the steep spike in virus cases throughout New Mexico in recent weeks. The department is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of workers and prisoners, he added.
But civil rights advocates, former prison workers and inmates say the governor and Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero should be doing more to reduce the number of infections.
The Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas — where all incoming prisoners are screened for placement — had about 180 confirmed cases late last week; the Roswell Correctional Center had 218, a number that has exploded since the state reported the facility’s first inmate case Nov. 1.
Eight inmates systemwide were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, Harrison said, and more than 220 staff members had infections.
The state reported Friday that a man in his 50s who had been incarcerated at the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Cibola County had died. The death marks the seventh fatality in a state prison, according to Corrections Department data.
“This is exactly what we knew was going to happen and have been trying to prevent,” said Lalita Moskowitz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “Now it feels like the governor and the Corrections Department should be taking a look at this and making changes, but that’s not happening.”
A spokeswoman for the governor didn’t respond specifically to questions about what the state has learned about controlling the virus in prisons and what it might be doing differently eight months into the pandemic to prevent outbreaks.
Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor is “evaluating all manner of recommendations from public health experts and the state medical advisory team” about how to encourage compliance with best practices “and stem the tide of infections.”
A plea for protections
The ACLU of New Mexico has been pushing since the early weeks of the pandemic for a mass release of low-level offenders to reduce inmate populations.
Lujan Grisham instead ordered the rolling release of a narrow class of inmates — most of whom were within 30 days of completing their sentences. As of Nov. 10, her order had resulted in the early release of 249 people over a six-month period, and the statewide prison population remained at just over 6,100.
Earlier this year, the ACLU, the state Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed a joint petition asking the state Supreme Court to order the governor and corrections secretary to authorize a mass release of inmates. But the court denied the request.
The ACLU and the defense attorneys association then filed a class-action lawsuit against Lujan Grisham and Tafoya Lucero in August on behalf of eight inmates claiming prisons are failing to follow COVID-19 safety policies.
State District Judge Matthew Wilson dismissed the complaint Oct. 20 after state officials argued the plaintiffs hadn’t exhausted administrative grievance procedures.
The plaintiffs have appealed Wilson’s ruling, arguing the grievance procedure is “unavailable and futile.”
“The process is designed to prevent inmates from being heard,” Moskowitz said. “We are really seeing the flaws in the system right now.”
Individual inmates also have filed lawsuits asking to be released to increase their chances of avoiding the virus.
Ruben Jaramillo — a 46-year-old inmate at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe who is serving an 18-year sentence on a drug-trafficking charge — filed a lawsuit in state District Court in July asking to be released on a temporary furlough because of medical conditions he has that increase his chances of becoming seriously ill if he contracts the virus.
He said in his handwritten plea that prisoners were issued only one mask each and “were given watered down cleaning solution and no cleaning rags” to keep their living quarters clean. Some staff members, he wrote, “refuse to use masks while at work.”
When Jaramillo filed his complaint three months ago, there was only one case among inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. As of Friday, there were 70.
Anthony Oveide, an inmate at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in September alleging prisoners at the Los Lunas facility were “on lockdown 24 hours per day 7 days per week.”
“We inmates have been stuck in this quarantine unit for over 2 weeks not knowing anything about what is going on with us,” he wrote.
Pushed to resign
Two longtime employees of the Los Lunas prison said in recent interviews they quit their jobs because of fears about the virus and poor treatment from prison officials.
“I didn’t want to risk getting COVID and potentially dying from it at the prison,” said Ernie Garcia, 43, of Socorro, who had been working in the watchtower at the prison for nearly 20 years when he quit in October.
Garcia said prison officials were slow to adopt virus safety protocols in the first weeks of the pandemic. Eventually, he said, each guard was issued one mask made from an old prison uniform.
“When we asked about extras, they said, ‘Just take a shower when you get home. When you are in the shower, wash it, like the inmates do their laundry, and when you wake up and come back to work, it should be dry,’ ” Garcia said.
The Corrections Department eventually gave one disposable N95 mask to each officer, he said, and they were asked to then turn them in after two weeks of use so they could be disinfected and reused.
Officials at the Los Lunas prison sent an email to staff Nov. 3 saying if they needed a new mask, it would be a “1 for 1 exchange.”
“We are limited on stock,” the email said, “so please use your best judgement on replacing.”
Harrison said, however, that each inmate was given three reusable face masks, and employees were issued “N95s, disposable surgical masks, as well as cloth masks.”
The department is “strictly following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines on decontamination and reuse for N95 respirator masks,” Harrison said.
Garcia said a series of events that led him to quit his job began in June, when he traveled to Arizona to take his son to college. He was told he would need to complete a 14-day unpaid quarantine after the trip and would need back-to-back negative novel coronavirus tests before he could return to work.
When he went to get the second test, Garcia said, his doctor told him he was risking his life by continuing to work in the prison because he has diabetes.
He requested an extension on his medical leave under a provision in the federal CARES Act for people at risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19. But he said his application was denied.
“I felt like they turned their backs on me,” he said.
Many of his colleagues were already using medical leave to get a break from a grueling work schedule that, due to a massive staffing shortage, included regular mandatory overtime, he said, adding it was “the only way to get a break when you are working 16 to 20 hours a day.”
When Garcia’s medical leave ran out, his wife and kids begged him not to go back, and he agreed.
“It’s too dangerous,” Garcia said. “I still have things I want to do.”
James Carter, 38, said he worked at the Los Lunas prison for 16½ years before quitting in September.
He volunteered to work in the prison’s COVID-19 unit, which initially had only one patient. As more prisoners tested positive for the virus and the prison began quarantining incoming inmates, he said, the administration began housing both infected inmates and new prisoners in the same unit.
The men were in separate cells, Carter said, but they all shared a common ventilation system.
Carter said the quarantining inmates were restless because they only were allowed out of the cell once a day to shower. They couldn’t make phone calls and weren’t allowed to receive mail.
“They had no clue what was going on,” he said. “I would do what I could to learn what was going on to keep them calm.”
Carter also complained that prison officials never taught the guards how to decontaminate themselves at the end of a shift.
“We had a can of Lysol, and we would line up and spray each other down with Lysol,” he said.
The first outbreak Carter was aware of came in July. A nurse who worked in both the COVID-19 unit and the main infirmary tested positive, he said.
“So they tested everyone, and I came out positive, too,” he said.
Carter said he was placed on paid leave and told to quarantine until he could produce back-to-back negative tests. He was cleared to work “two months and 18 tests later,” he said.
Shortly after he returned, he became ill and was diagnosed with a strep infection that required hospitalization.
When he recovered, the prison wanted him to take another COVID-19 test.
“It would have been the sixth time in a one-week period,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to test again.’ If you refuse to get tested, they send you home on your own leave time.”
Harrison didn’t provide responses to questions about prison workers’ morale or the pandemic’s effects on staffing shortages.
In an email, he said, “We are grateful for our dedicated staff that continue to show up to work each day to combat the virus and maintain public safety.”