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Sandoval County jail repairs means fewer inmates

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — For safety reasons, the Sandoval County Commission voted unanimously earlier this month to reduce the number of federal inmates at the county jail during ongoing renovations.

Sandoval County Detention Center Director Gilbert Armendariz and Assistant Detention Center Director Chris Urbanic requested the reduction.

“A lot of people don’t know, but this detention center is 31 years old,” Commissioner Jay Block said during the meeting. “After it was built in 1988, it was really left to rot in place for many years.”

According to Block, the current commission has taken the renovations of SCDC seriously to mitigate any legal exposure the county could face if the facility was left in what was considered dire shape.

Last year, Urbanic, then interim director, came before the commission for help with the many issues the jail was facing.

Some of the items he pointed out were the deteriorating pipes that supplied water to the entire facility, as well as cell doors that wouldn’t close properly and lack of cameras – crucial for his guards’ safety – in sections of the detention center.

The commission passed two 1/16-of-a-percent gross receipts tax increases to help pay back a $5.9 million loan from Century Bank for the remodeling. However, the estimated cost for all the renovations needed is around $6.5 million.

Adding to this, the commission created a citizens advisory council to help oversee the detention center on a regular basis before any issues could arise or be overlooked.

Now, as the detention center enters a different phase in construction, safety has become the biggest concern when it comes to federal inmates.

Sandoval County spokeswoman Melissa Perez said in an email that, as of Dec. 1, 2018, the county receives $82 a day per federal inmate, a price that has gone up since Armendariz and Urbanic have taken over operations. As of last week, Perez said the county had 185 federal detainees.

“The reduction of detainees has been in the plans since the start of the detention center renovation project,” she said. “Typically, the Sandoval County Detention Center can house 511 detainees a day. Since the start of Phase 1 of the renovation project, we have been operating at about 400 detainees a day.

“Now that we are entering Phase 2 of construction, which includes cell door locks, we need to further reduce the population of detainees to clear full pods to allow for construction in areas which need to be empty for the renovation.”

According to Perez, for the past three fiscal years, the center has received $4.5 million in revenue for housing federal detainees at the jail.

With the current reduction request passed, the county is looking at losing approximately $2.9 million annually, according to Perez.

She said that because of the thinning of inmates SCDC’s daily rates will fall in terms of food and health care. Plus, she said, staffing needs will decrease without layoffs.

“A smaller population of detainees is easier to manage and move around the facility, which enhances efficiency and safety,” Perez said. “Reducing the number of detainees during the renovation project enhances safety for the staff, detainees, contractors hired by the county and the community.”

In regard to compensating for the lack of federal funds, Perez said there are opportunities for grant funding.

“We could look at using general funds,” she said. “It will take a tightening of the belt, but I think we can make it. After all, it is a requirement of the county to have a detention center and we are doing our best to comply with state statutes during much-needed renovations.”

Perez said Sandoval County is looking at 18 to 24 months before the renovations of SCDC are complete.

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