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Prison Releases Focus of Audit

LOS LUNAS – Christopher Blattner should have been behind bars. Instead, police say, he was behind a gun, firing at officers during a nine-hour SWAT standoff at his Albuquerque home last month.

Mistakenly released in February, three years earlier than he should have been, the convicted methamphetamine trafficker was eventually arrested in connection with a new homicide case and questioned about a missing 62-year-old Albuquerque woman.

It’s a case, New Mexico prison officials say, that highlights the dangers associated with short-staffing and an antiquated paper record-keeping system for tracking sometimes complicated formula changes to inmate sentences based on things like time off for good behavior and sentences for new crimes committed while behind bars.

The result: Some inmates in New Mexico are being prematurely released while others are being held long after their full sentences have been served.

“To learn that early releases have occurred by mistake on the part of the administration is shocking and unsettling for crime victims,” said Victoria Amada, staff attorney of the NM Victims’ Rights Project, which advocates on behalf of crime victims.

Inmate rights groups, meantime, say many inmates have no idea if they are being released on time, which affects morale and the incentive to rehabilitate.

“We were always asking staff and guards, ‘When I am getting out? When am I getting out?’ ” said Julie Gosselin, a 38-year-old who was released on time in May following a drug charge. “When they don’t and you don’t know, you don’t know what to do.”

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel, who was appointed in October 2011 by Gov. Susana Martinez to take over the department, concedes that the department has problems tracking inmate sentences.

“It has to do as much with our records still being kept on paper as it does our business model. It’s old,” he said.

Marcantel says he intends to ask lawmakers for money next year to computerize the inmate database. He says he will also ask lawmakers to simplify how good time is calculated, to avoid human error. Additionally, he has launched an aggressive campaign to hire returning veterans to fill more than 600 positions at prisons around the state.

Meanwhile, he says he has joined in on looking through some of the “high stacks” of aging documents with complicated formulas and dates of the state 6,600 or so inmates. “They are stacks high and at times hard to read,” he said.

Until the audit is complete, it’s unclear how many inmates have been released early or kept too long because of documentation problems. But recent news of early releases made it clear that Blattner was not alone. So far, prison officials have identified at least eight inmates incorrectly released.

Officials recently discovered, for example, that Zearl Green, 46, was mistakenly released from the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in June 2007, though he had a judgment and sentence for an additional eight years for possession of deadly weapon by a prisoner. While he was out, Green was convicted in June 2011 of a drug charge. Officials didn’t realize the mistake until an audit of that prison was conducted.

In the case of Blattner, authorities blame a string of bureaucratic errors. Not only was he wrongly released early, prison officials had no idea he had been sentenced five years earlier in a separate drug case but never showed up to turn himself in.

New Mexico isn’t the only state struggling with antiquated systems and complicated good time laws that contribute to the early releases of inmates from its state prisons.

New Mexico’s audit, which began in July, is expected to last three to six months. Until then, the department is releasing bi-weekly updates about inmates released before their scheduled dates.

The effort is being hailed by both inmate and victims’ rights groups.

“There’s no real reason why this problem can’t be fixed,” Amada said.

Ann Edenfield Sweet, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Wings Ministry, an organization that supports families of incarcerated loved ones, said she was pleased that prison officials were finally addressing the problem of clearing up time served. “Families just don’t know when an inmate is going to be released,” she said. “This will help.”

Marcantel said the revamp of records will also help the department with programs for motivating prisoners to rehabilitate themselves.

“We want to make sure we give inmates a clear plan that shows what they need to do to get out and what will happen if they break the rules and have to stay longer,” he said. “We want people to do their time then move on with their lives.”