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‘A frightening place to be’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As state officials announced seven new COVID-19 cases Thursday, Sandoval County asked a judge to order its detention center to release all inmates who are in custody for nonviolent and misdemeanor offenses and to refuse to book anyone else on those charges.

If the request is granted following a hearing set for next week, Sandoval County will join a small number of jurisdictions around the country that are working to reduce daily arrest numbers and jail populations in light of the outbreak.

Sandoval County is home to four of the 35 cases of COVID-19 reported by New Mexico’s Department of Health as of Thursday. The updated total released Thursday added four cases in Bernalillo County, two in Santa Fe and one in San Miguel County. Thursday’s court filing reports that there have not been any cases of coronavirus in the Sandoval County Detention Center, which currently houses and provides medical care to around 200 inmates. About 100 employees work to run and maintain the facility.

“It is in the best interest of Sandoval County citizens to release all persons charged with or convicted of misdemeanor or non-violent felony crimes, being held on behalf of any jurisdiction or authority, from the Sandoval County Detention Center during the State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus,” the petition for a writ of mandamus filed on Thursday says. County officials said they were unable to comment on the pending litigation.

The city of Rio Rancho is fighting the request, saying it includes an “unduly broad range of crimes” that its officers would no longer be able to arrest people for.

“If this petition is granted, as written and requested, it will jeopardize public health and safety for the citizens of Rio Rancho and Sandoval County and threaten the public’s trust and confidence in municipal and county governments,” assistant city attorney Joshua Rubin wrote in a filing.

Defense attorneys and advocates around the state have called on local and state officials to take action amid fears that the virus could spread rapidly in a jail, endangering both inmates and staff. They lauded the move by Sandoval County.

“It’s very important to get out as many people as we can and to do it quickly. Because if someone is exposed in a jail, they can bring it into the general population when they are released,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur told the Journal on Thursday. “And if we are arresting people on low-level traffic offenses, misdemeanors, bench warrants and they go into the jail, they can bring it in. So it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Baur said defense attorneys around the state are using every possible avenue to try to advocate to get their clients out of jail as the emergency unfolds.

In Bernalillo County, attorneys working on the McClendon jail conditions lawsuit sent a letter to county officials on Tuesday sharing a set of suggested precautions that they hope could help protect inmates and staff alike. The attorneys have urged the county to, among other things, increase space among beds in the detoxification unit and to ensure that inmates in all pods have access to soap and cleaning materials. They also asked the county to waive copays for inmates who request medical attention, and a spokesman for the county said Thursday that the county has done that for medical calls related to coronavirus.

“In making these requests, we’re trying to be collaborative and to do anything that we can to assist in protecting our class members and our greater community,” attorney Kate Loewe said. “All of these things might be happening already, and if they are, that is fantastic.” They are also urging Bernalillo County to take steps to identify vulnerable inmates and to authorize them for the community custody program, which allows people to await trial or serve a sentence outside jail while wearing a GPS monitor and abiding by a series of conditions. Additionally, they are asking Albuquerque to expand a policy that encourages citations rather than arrests for certain offenses.

A coalition of defense attorneys made its own plea to the state’s judiciary to do what it can to lower the number of people being held in jails and prisons around the state. In a letter to the Supreme Court early this week, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association urged justices to recommend the release of vulnerable people from jail and to do what it can to lower the number of people being arrested each day.

On Thursday, Matt Coyte, one of the association’s past presidents, said the CDLA “wholly endorses” the “proactive action” Sandoval County is pursuing.

Coyte said that agencies must reduce jail and prison population levels immediately to maintain safe environments.

“Our concern here is that prisoners or inmates in facilities across the state are helpless to protect themselves,” Coyte said in an interview earlier in the week. “It’s a frightening place to be in this time of crisis.”

MDC said it is taking steps to keep inmates and staff safe. The facility continues to ask questions regarding COVID-19 and to take temperatures as part of its routine medical screening for new inmates. One inmate has been tested for the virus, and the test came back negative, Larry Gallegos, a spokesman for Bernalillo County, said in an email.

Gallegos said it is not possible to keep every person in the Metropolitan Detention Center 6 feet apart, as some health officials have recommended. However he said that inmates are able to self-quarantine in their individual cells if they choose. Although hand sanitizer is not allowed into the facility because of its alcohol content, Gallegos said that everyone in the jail has access to soap and warm water.

As to the inmate who was tested for the virus, Gallegos said that person was taken to a hospital for an unrelated medical reason, and even after the negative test, the person was placed in isolation as a precaution. The staffers who were in contact with the person were also placed in isolation as a precaution.

MDC announced last week that it has discontinued all in-person visits to the jail, canceled classes at its charter school and is giving inmates the ability to reach attorneys and loved ones via mail, phone and tablets. The jail said in the announcement that it is paying “close attention to its older population and those with underlying health problems” and continues to follow infection prevention and control guidelines.

Italian facilities have seen unrest in recent days as the virus takes hold in communities there. And Coyte said that assuring people that their concerns are being taken seriously may help avoid a similar situation here.

“The prisoners are generally the last in society for people to look at or care about,” he said. “It’s important that we make it clear that we’re going to help them.”


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