Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
After weeks of vocal concern from advocates and attorneys about the risk of COVID-19 spreading through jails and prisons, a 39-year-old inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center has tested positive for the virus – the first known case in a New Mexico correctional facility.
As a result, several other inmates and staff members at the county jail, as well as the arresting officers, are now in quarantine or self-isolating at home, according to various agencies.
Bernalillo County officials said the man, whose name they are not releasing, was booked into the jail on a probation violation Thursday. They say he was not showing any symptoms at the time.
“Two days after arriving at MDC, the jail was informed that the inmate’s mother was hospitalized and tested positive for COVID-19,” Tia Bland, a county spokeswoman, wrote in a news release. “The inmate had been caring for his mother prior to being booked in MDC. After learning of this information, the jail moved the inmate into an isolation cell and proceeded with a 14-day quarantine of inmates in two housing pods where the exposed inmate had been housed.”
She said he is now receiving treatment from the jail’s medical team.
Larry Gallegos, another county spokesman, said three inmates are in quarantine individually and 78 others are in isolation – not quarantine – in designated housing pods as a precaution.
Four jail staff members who had come into contact with the inmate are self-isolating at home for 14 days. So are the seven probation and parole officers who were involved in taking the inmate into custody, according to a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
“All other inmates are being monitored for symptoms of COVID-19, to date no one else has presented with the symptoms,” Bland said.
Gallegos said that the facility is prepared to provide clinical health care to individuals with coronavirus. He said the in-house practitioner will determine, in consultation with state health officials, when a person should be hospitalized.
Advocates have worried for weeks about the possible ramifications of an outbreak in a correctional facility. And Brian Aragon, who was released from MDC Saturday after a three-day stay, said inmates are worried, too.
In a phone interview Monday, Aragon said social distancing was impossible since he shared a small cell with another man for some time. Although he was given a small bar of soap, he said he did not have access to other basic cleaning products. He said he believes the facility ramped up cleaning and other precautionary efforts after the case was confirmed, but thinks those measures were implemented too late.
“I feel bad for the people that are in there still. It’s living hell,” he said. “Normally I can be in jail and do it standing on my head. But because of this virus, it makes it really scary.”
Aragon said he now worries that he could have the virus, and he worries about the possibility of spreading it now that he’s out. He is not confident that medical concerns in the facility will be responded to promptly or taken seriously and believes conditions could devolve as fears over the virus intensify.
“It’s going to get worse in there,” he said. “It’s going to cause a lot of fighting, it’s going to cause a lot of turmoil.”
MDC has announced several changes in recent weeks intended to protect inmates and staff, including a push last week to release nonviolent inmates considered medically vulnerable. MDC officials said they were planning to work with prosecutors and defense attorneys to find ways to release additional nonviolent inmates as part of a broader effort to bring down the jail’s head count.
Bland said the jail is screening every inmate and staff member entering the facility, increasing disinfecting throughout the building and mandating that everyone who enters washes their hands.
The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said that MDC’s recent changes are a welcome first step, but efforts to release more people should be accelerated.
“We need to immediately suspend the intake of new prisoners except in rare circumstances where there is an immediate threat to public safety,” said NMCDLA past president Matt Coyte. He has also called for a faster release process for people who are nearing their parole dates.
Meanwhile, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said the MDC case “shows the urgency of our efforts around the state to release as many nondangerous detainees as possible in a quick, orderly fashion to limit the spread of the virus and to protect the health and safety of our communities.”
As of January, MDC had an average onsite daily population of just over 1,300. Department of Corrections prisons house 6,687 people, according to a spokesman. He said only one prison inmate has been tested for coronavirus, and the results were negative.