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Inmates vulnerable to coronavirus

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County is screening inmates as they arrive and has been since Feb. 13, spokeswoman Tia Bland said. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s only a matter of time before inmates in prisons and county jails are exposed to the novel coronavirus, public defenders and advocates said Thursday.

And officials said they are monitoring prisoners at state prisons and facilities such as the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County – the largest county jail in the state.

“MDC continues to follow established infection prevention and control guidelines to prevent the spread of emerging infectious diseases,” Bernalillo County spokeswoman Tia Bland told the Journal. “We provide information, education and screening. MDC has airborne isolation rooms available to utilize as needed.”

She said the county has identified two PODS (living areas) where male and female inmates can be housed and quarantined if the need arises.

And Bland said MDC is screening inmates as they arrive and have been since Feb. 13. She said more than 2,000 people have been screened, but none have tested positive for the illness.

State Department of Corrections spokesperson Eric Harrison said none of the state’s inmates have been tested as of Thursday.

“If at any point in the future our medical provider indicates to us that an inmate is showing symptoms for COVID-19, we will work collaboratively with the Department of Health to get that individual tested as soon as possible, and take measures to prevent any spread in the facility,” he said.

Harrison said all contact visitation is suspended through the end of April. Non-contact visitation for immediate family members will be permitted to all eligible inmates as available. He said all volunteer activities in facilities are suspended through the end of April, including events, clubs and banquets.

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to the DOC and the New Mexico Association of Counties requesting plans be developed at the state’s 12 prisons and 30 county jails. The ACLU, New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project sent similar letters to the Torrance County Detention Facility, the Otero County Processing Center and the Cibola County Correctional Center asking that they develop plans with the DOH and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The people in those facilities are in an especially vulnerable position when a public health crisis happens like this,” ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said. “Whether we like it or not, these people are part of our community.”

He said many inmates in state facilities aren’t in excellent health “and their condition works against them with a virus like this.”

“People in custody are often in cramped quarters in close contact with other inmates,” Simonson said. “They often don’t have access to cleaning supplies.”

The state Law Office of the Public Defender has similar concerns, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said.

He said those concerns include public defenders exposing inmates to the virus because they (public defenders) have to visit clients in court and other clients and their families in their homes.

“I know it’s almost unthinkable, but we’re looking at having to limit contact with them (inmates),” he said.

Bland said MDC is reviewing and updating its pandemic plan.

“In the event of a positive test result, the patient will be assessed and appropriate housing and treatment will be determined by the medical team including the DOH,” she said.

CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said the facilities his company manages – including the detention centers in Torrance and Cibola counties – have comprehensive emergency response plans in place which include processes to detect and track diseases; collect, analyze, and report data on individuals exhibiting signs of illness; and to separate the sick from the well.

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