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Corrections secretary nominee withdraws

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, right, announced Julie Jones as her pick for New Mexico Corrections secretary at a Jan. 31 news conference. Jones said Tuesday she had decided to decline the appointment. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick to run New Mexico’s prison system backed out of the job Tuesday, saying unforeseen personal issues had caused her to decline the appointment.

In a letter to the governor, Julie Jones said the issues, which she did not further explain, prevented her from being able to move to New Mexico to take on the job of corrections secretary.

“You have a bold vision for your state, and I truly regret not being a part of your team,” Jones wrote.

A former corrections secretary in Florida, Jones was appointed New Mexico corrections secretary by Lujan Grisham on Jan. 31.

Her decision to back out of the job means the governor will have to start from scratch in finding a new appointee to run the agency. A Governor’s Office spokesman said Tuesday that the search has started.

“Ms. Jones was an excellent candidate to lead our Corrections Department,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “I’m sorry to see her withdraw her candidacy, because I felt and feel she would have been exactly the keen-eyed, experienced leader the agency needs.”

But the first-term Democratic governor also said she respected Jones’ decision and wished her well for the future.

New Mexico’s prison system has struggled in recent years with high vacancy and overtime rates for corrections officers, along with aging prison infrastructure.

The state also has a history of prison crowding and unrest, including the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary outside Santa Fe, during which 33 inmates were killed by other inmates.

Jones had been scheduled to start work in New Mexico on Friday, and her appointment would have been subject to Senate confirmation.

During her four years running Florida’s 100,000-inmate prison system, she dealt with budget challenges and resolved three class-action lawsuits filed against her involving inmate medical care.

But Lujan Grisham had previously said Jones’ work history and the Florida litigation were closely reviewed during the vetting process.

Meanwhile, at the time her appointment was announced, both Lujan Grisham and Jones said they would push to address chronic understaffing in the New Mexico Corrections Department and evaluate whether the state is overusing solitary confinement for inmates.

A $7 billion budget plan passed last week by the House includes a $14.2 million – or 4.6 percent – funding increase for the Corrections Department, which would be used to hire more corrections officers and expand programs that help inmates transition back into the community.