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Crowding and officer shortages still plague NM prisons

Part 3 in a 3-part series: Revisiting the Nightmare

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Overcrowding. A shortage of corrections officers. An inmate classification system that critics say doesn’t accurately assess the threat level of prisoners and needs to be overhauled. A lack of meaningful training programs for prisoners who will be back on the street.

These were some of the problems that plagued the state Corrections Department before the 1980 prison riot that claimed the lives of 33 inmates, traumatized guards who were taken hostage and left the main building at the Penitentiary of New Mexico a burned-out shell.

And they still exist today – although lawmakers have increased spending on corrections from about $20 million annually to about $328 million for the current fiscal year.

But experts say the possibility of a riot on anything approaching the scale of the 1980 uprising that dominated headlines around the country for 36 hours is remote because of better design, improved technology, the way inmates are separated and much-improved training for corrections officers.

“We have some of the same problems they had before the riot,” said Dirk Lee, president of the Correctional Officers Association. “We’re short-staffed in some prisons – 24% across the board. Some of the prisons are overcrowded.”

The state went on a prison building spree after the riot – adding state and private facilities – with an emphasis on avoiding another uprising.

“We have the containment and social control of inmates down. It is what we’ve concentrated on for 30 years,” said former Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel, a former Marine and retired Bernalillo County sheriff’s captain who served as secretary from 2011 to 2016.

But he said that came at a cost of reduced programs to help inmates change their criminal behavior.

“What the concentration on security did was encourage more violent social groups (gangs),” he said. “We were having people leave the prison system more violent than when they entered.”

To control gangs – members of one gang have been convicted in federal court for plotting to murder Marcantel – the use of administrative segregation, sometimes known as solitary confinement, increased where inmates are held in their cells 23 hours and allowed one hour out of their cells but no interaction with other inmates.

“When I came in we were releasing inmates directly from administrative segregation to the streets,” Marcantel said. “Those people were coming right back into our custody.”

That comes as no surprise to longtime inmate attorney Mark Donatelli.

“The emphasis after the riot was security,” Donatelli said. “And guess who all the lobbyists were working for. People who had land to sell the state, architects, builders.”

And the state’s newest prison, in Clayton, was unnecessary, Donatelli said.

“It was about jobs for the area,” Donatelli said. “The money would have been better spend reducing recidivism.”

The push for more prisons ignored many of the recommendations made in Attorney General Jeff Bingaman’s report on the riot and the Governor’s Commission on the Riot. Both recommended a greater emphasis on community corrections programs instead of prisons.

“In 1980 there were no lobbyists for halfway houses in New Mexico,” Donatelli said. “In the midst of the post riot paranoia we took an ass backward approach.”

Over the years, reports from the Legislative Finance Committee, an investigation of the Santa Rosa disturbance that led to the killing of a corrections officer in the 1990s and a corrections study commission appointed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson all recommended a greater reliance on community corrections programs and halfway houses for reintegration of inmates back into society.

Alisha Tafoya Lucero, recently appointed Corrections Secretary by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said, “I believe our institutions are safer. We are focusing on reintegration and reduced recidivism.”

Fundamental changes

Anything is possible if inmates gain control of master keys or firearms. But inmates, corrections officers and corrections officials agree that the changes over the last 40 years go right down to the foundations of the prison buildings.

The “telephone pole” system – housing inmates of all classifications, maximum, medium and minimum under one roof – was one of the root causes of the riot. It was in effect at the prison due to a construction project even though it was a 1950s era holdover and already considered obsolete at the time of the riot.

The state prisons built in the 1980s and the private prisons built in the 1990s are based on a pod design with a central control room for each group of pods.

The new prisons are less reliant on keys. Instead officers in control rooms open and close doors electronically.

The design fed into the culture of containment intended to prevent rioting inmates from seizing an entire prison.

But security design didn’t include space “to create job training, education and other programs to provide inmates with skills that could be life changing,” Marcantel said.

The pods in state prisons hold as few as 16 inmates while most of the pods in the private prisons hold between 40 and 60.

Sight lines in the old cellblocks made it difficult to monitor inmate activities. Dormitories were too large and poorly lit – when the lights worked – for corrections officers to patrol safely.

The newer prisons are designed to give officers in the control rooms good sight lines and have good lighting.

In the Old Main, the design and security failures at the start of the riot – doors and riot prevention gates (called grills) were unlocked – allowed the uprising to spread quickly.

In the new design, if inmates manage to seize and open one door, they run into another door that is electronically locked.

At the start of the riot, maximum security inmates were living in a dormitory meant for less dangerous inmates because their cellblock was being renovated.

In the new prisons, inmates are separated by classification, with the exception of the Reception and Diagnostic unit at the state prison in Los Lunas. That’s where inmates receive their classification level so inmates in that unit are mixed.

The classification system attempts to measure how much of a threat an inmate poses for escape or violence against other inmates and officers.

Lee, the officers’ union president, said officers believe some dangerous inmates have been reclassified to lower threat levels because of overcrowding in certain areas of the prison system.

But inmates and inmate attorneys say the classification system routinely gives inmates a higher threat level than deserved.

Marcantel reduced the classification of some inmates in an attempt to reduce the number of prisoners in administrative segregation.

In an interview, he said he knew some corrections officers were concerned about reducing the reliance on administrative segregation but that available evidence didn’t support keeping them locked up 23 hours a day with an hour for exercise or a shower each day.

The department’s budget includes money for an ongoing review of the classification system with a contract with the University of New Mexico.

Officer shortage

A shortage of corrections officers has been a problem since before the riot.

Understaffing varies from prison to prison, but the Legislative Finance Committee found the Department of Corrections was short more than 24% of authorized strength systemwide despite an 8.5% raise officers received last year.

Cadets start at $15.55 an hour and that increases to $18.56 an hour once they complete an eight-week academy.

Lee said there are people who want the jobs but it takes too long to get hired.

“It was taking between 90 and 180 days for people to get hired,” Lee said. “People can’t sit around waiting for an application to be processed for six months. That’s too long.”

To address that problem, Corrections Secretary Tafoya Lucero said the department is no longer doing all screening of prospective employees in Santa Fe. Instead, it is conducting two-day on-site screening programs in towns that have prisons.

“Over the course of two days, a person goes through the physical fitness test, polygraph and psychological evaluation,” Tafoya Lucero said. “They will know if they are qualified at the end of the two days.”

Officers at prisons throughout the state are better trained than those who were on duty during the riot.

At that time, only a few recently hired officers received 40 hours of training before being put on duty at the state prison. Some officers on duty the night the riot started had no training, except what they received on the job.

“Every one of our officers attends an eight-week academy where they are prepared to work in our prisons,” Tafoya Lucero said. “Everything from first aid to de-escalation techniques.”

Lee said the current training program for officers is “very good” and that officers go through a 40-hour refresher program annually.

“Officer safety has to be a priority, people are trained properly,” Tafoya Lucero said.

LFC concerned

For more than a decade, the Legislative Finance Committee has pounded on the Department of Corrections on two issues – too many inmates serving parole time inside prison and too many parolees returning to prison after their release.

The LFC, which acts as the legislative watchdog on state spending, is concerned because each inmate, on average, costs the state between $34,000 and $35,000 a year.

The state cost for an inmate on parole is less than $2,000.

More than 9% of the inmate population – male and female – were in prison past their scheduled parole date.

In some cases that’s the inmate’s choice. Rather than two years on monitored parole, an inmate with good time credit can walk out after a year with zero restrictions. Or preparation.

In some cases, parole is delayed by bureaucratic problems in the system. Either way, it defeats the reason for a parole system, which is to acclimate the prisoner to life on the outside while being monitored.

“These are people the state needs to have under supervision so the state can make sure they are participating in drug and other programs,” Donatelli said. “If they serve their parole in prison they are released to the streets without any supervision.”

They don’t have to meet with their parole officers on a regular basis, have a job, provide urine samples and allow the parole officer to visit and inspect their residence. They don’t have to participate in drug or alcohol programs that might be part of a parole plan.

And that makes them much more likely to re-offend and end up back in prison.

It also contributed to overcrowding – and cost – because inmates who could be out on parole are still inside.

Prisons can’t do anything to control the number of people arrested by police, prosecuted by district attorneys and sent to prison by judges.

But Donatelli said Corrections can do a better job of reducing the number of inmates returning to prison.

Little support

About 300 inmates are released by the state prisons each month after finishing their sentences to serve parole. Based on history, roughly half will return to prison within three years.

Marcantel said he found little support in efforts to improve pre-release and other programs designed to help inmates change their “criminal behavior.”

They have to find places to live, jobs and most are required to enter drug or alcohol treatment programs. Some need psychiatric treatment.

In contrast, most inmates released from federal prison are required to spend the last six months of their sentence in a halfway house, making the arrangements for treatment and contacts for jobs.

They also get support in those job hunts and apartment searches while they adapt to being outside of prison. Once federal officers approve the arrangements, former inmates start serving a period of “supervision,” usually two to three years.

The state does support halfway houses but they are used after someone has been paroled and may not have anywhere else to live.

Donatelli said the federal system makes more sense. Attorney Peter Cubra, who represents inmates, says “support and supervision are the key to keeping people from returning to prison.”

Marcantel says people need to think about how this affects not just inmates, but the entire community.

“These inmates are going to get released,” he said. “That’s 96 of every 100 people who enter the system. They’re coming back to your neighborhoods.”

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