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County jail releases medically at-risk inmates

Metropolitan Detention Center. (AP file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

With help from judges and attorneys, the Metropolitan Detention Center has released several nonviolent inmates who are considered to be medically vulnerable.

And in an effort to further reduce the jail population amid coronavirus concerns, officials at MDC are considering releasing more detainees who are in custody on nonviolent charges.

The announcement comes as defense lawyers and advocates around the state ask state and local leaders to do more to protect inmates from COVID-19.

“We feel like the less people that are there, the better,” said attorney Ryan Villa, who is working on the McClendon jail conditions lawsuit. “Inmates can’t socially distance themselves from each other.”

The lower the population in the event of an outbreak, he said, the better equipped MDC will be to manage it.

In a news release Thursday, MDC said it recently compiled a list of 86 inmates deemed medically at risk. Of those, 46 are in custody on violent charges and are not eligible for release.

The remaining 40 have either been freed through various avenues – judges set new conditions of release, granted early release, or MDC and prosecutors agreed they could be released into the Community Custody Program – or are awaiting a hearing.

The facility has also compiled a list of nonviolent misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders who are not medically vulnerable but could be released to lower the jail head count. Inmates would be freed, either outright or to the community custody program, only after a court hearing, Bernalillo County spokesman Larry Gallegos said.

Many jurisdictions around the country have taken steps to reduce daily arrest numbers and jail populations amid fears that coronavirus could spread quickly in a correctional facility. Sandoval County reduced its own jail population significantly to allow inmates to live one per cell and in compliance with mandates from health officials.

MDC says it is taking additional precautions to protect inmates. Only a few people per hour are allowed into common areas. And beginning next week, all court proceedings involving inmates will be held via videoconference. The jail has set aside two pods that can be used to quarantine people if needed. There have not been any known cases of COVID-19 at the jail.

Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors are working closely with defense attorneys and the county to identify a limited number of offenders who can be safely placed on pretrial supervision or be authorized to complete their sentences out of custody.

“The District Attorney’s Office is concerned that an outbreak of coronavirus at the Metropolitan Detention Center would not only jeopardize the health of inmates and criminal justice stakeholders but the entire community,” he said. “We are also concerned that an outbreak at the jail would limit our ability to safely detain the most violent and dangerous offenders during this public health emergency.”

Albuquerque District Defender Jennifer Barela said that defense attorneys appreciate that the DA is taking the virus seriously and will continue to work with his office to release other nonviolent offenders.

“Some of these individuals are being held for lower level, nonviolent offenses, like shoplifting or a probation violation for a nonviolent offense,” Barela said in a statement. “Many of our clients are struggling with their drug addiction and now their life is at risk because social distancing simply isn’t possible at MDC.”


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