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Sandoval County Detention Center cells remain empty

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A decision by the Bernalillo County Commission means the Sandoval Detention Center will have to wait a bit longer before it comes up to capacity for inmates.

On Tuesday, a $1.4 million proposal to transfer inmates from Bernalillo County's overcrowded Metropolitan Detention Center to Sandoval County failed on a 2-2 vote of the Bernalillo County Commission.

The detention center is part of a long-running civil-rights lawsuit. The inmates' attorneys want the jail population reduced from about 2,500 to about 1,850.

The county planed to move about 300 inmates to other facilities, including Sandoval County, to reduce the inmate population to the Bernalillo County jail's design capacity of 2,236.

Had commissioners approved the proposal, the Sandoval County facility would have taken on 50 to 150 of those prisoners and would have been paid $62 per day for each inmate, according to the Metro Detention Center's spokeswoman Nataura Powdrell. She said the Bernalillo County facility planned to move the remaining prisoners to facilities in Estancia and Cibola in the state and to Littlefield, Texas.

"All of our negotiations were contingent on us getting the funding," she said.

And the Sandoval County facility has a fair amount of space available. The facility currently houses 175 inmates, according to Public Information Officer Sidney Hill, but has a maximum capacity of 386.

They can achieve that capacity after they spend $275,000 in capital outlay funding to retrofit cell doors at the detention center. That money will be used to install new locking technology for 90 cell doors. Currently, the county can't hold inmates in 37 of those cells due to problems with the old doors.

Had the contract with the Metro Detention Center gone through, Tom Swisstack, Bernalillo County's deputy public safety manager and mayor of Rio Rancho, said, Sandoval County could have brought a few employees back to work and had a stable, low-maintenance inmate population of Bernalillo County inmates for at least a year.

In reality, the failed contract really doesn't change all that much for Sandoval County, however, Hill said.

"We're just in the same position we were in before. It doesn't change the situation," he said. "The facility is staffed according to the population we have now. It just stays as it is."

Sandoval County is working on another contract to bringing federal inmates into the county facility. The county has housed federal inmates in the past, but U.S. Marshals removed federal detainees from the prison in March of 2012, after three inmate suicides.

Since that time, jail staff members have changed procedures, contracted for mental health services for inmates and worked with the federal government to go back to housing federal detainees. Hill said the prison is still making changes, however, and there is not a definite date for prisoners to return to the facility.

He refused to say much more than that and said that saying too much could put the staff and prisoners at risk.

"It's a process. It has to do with security with the facility. It's between the facility and the federal government," he said.

For his part, Swisstack said he was confident that the Sandoval County facility is a safe place to house prisoners.

"We were fortunate that Sandoval had vacant beds," he said.

Part of the new plan to address the overcrowding issue at the Bernalillo County facility is to identify prisoners who can be placed on house arrest and fit them with ankle bracelets, Swisstack said.

That solution, just like all of the proposed measures for dealing with the prisoner population, is a short-term solution to a problem that should resolve itself in time, Swisstack said.

"The system is changing," he said, "but it may not be changing as fast as we would like it to."

In the last few years, the Bernalillo jail population has gone from 3,300 to 2,600, he said. That's due to a systemic change in how quickly the courts handle cases and are able to move prisoners accused of low-level crimes through the system.

The overcrowding should become less of a concern as the court system changes, he said.

(Albuquerque Journal news staff contributed to this report.)

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