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Jail gears up to take Bernalillo County inmates

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The Sandoval Detention Center may take on inmates from Bernalillo County.

On Tuesday, the Bernalillo County Commission approved over $600,000 for this fiscal year up and to $6.8 million to cover prisoner transfers through June of 2014 to transfer about 300 inmates from Bernalillo County’s overcrowded Metropolitan Detention Center.

Depending on which facilities have the space to take them, Bernalillo County has agreements in place that would allow it to transfer prisoners to the facility in Sandoval County or to a handful of other detention centers in New Mexico — or to a facility in Littlefield, Texas.

A similar proposal before the Bernalillo County Commission failed last month on a 2-2 vote. Since then, legal pressures on the commission have increased. MDC is part of a long-running civil-rights lawsuit and the inmates’ attorneys want the jail population reduced from about 2,500 to about 1,850.

But by moving around 300 inmates to other facilities, inmate population at the Bernalillo County jail will be at or below its designed capacity of 2,236.

Tom Swisstack, Bernalillo County’s deputy public safety manager and mayor of Rio Rancho, said he is getting updated information on the bed space available.

“That might have changed from a month ago,” he said.

Reducing the prison population is a major public safety concern, he said.

“Our primary concern is the safety of the inmates and the safety of the staff,” he said. “A one-to-98 staffing ratio is a compromise for the staff and the inmates.”

He added that he will try to avoid moving “high-risk” and “high-needs” prisoners. Those are the prisoners who have a high potential for violence or require a lot of care, he said.

Sandoval County Manager Phil Rios said would prefer not to take on the additional expense associated with high risk or high needs prisoners. He said he received a phone call from the metro detention center on Wednesday, which he saw as an encouraging sign.

The county would like to house both MDC prisoners and win back a federal contract, he said, and he’d like to have both agreements in place and start housing the additional prisoners by July 1, if negotiations go well.

“I think that’s a reasonable goal,” he said.

Had the transfer of MDC prisoners been approved by the Bernalillo County Commission last month, the Sandoval County facility was expected to take 50 to 150 prisoners and would have been paid $62 per day for each inmate.

While the Sandoval County facility still has a fair amount of space available, over the last month it has made progress in a move to take on federal prisoners as well. The U.S. Marshals Service inspected the Sandoval County Detention Center on May 9 and may be interested in entering into a contract later this year.

The facility houses about 170 inmates from Sandoval County. The jail 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.

It costs about $7.5 million per year to house the county’s prisoners, but if the jail gets the federal contract, the cost for the county to house prisoners will go down to $4 million, according to reports by detention center director Al Casamento.

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