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ACLU petition leads to release of Santa Fe County inmate

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An inmate suffering from an autoimmune disease was released from Santa Fe County jail after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition claiming her health was at risk.

The ACLU argued that Yesenia Evans, who was serving a one-year sentence for violating her probation, was at significant risk for health problems caused by COVID-19 due to her preexisting condition.

“Ms. Evans has been living in very real fear for her life,” ACLU staff attorney Lalita Moskowitz said in a prepared statement. “People involved in the criminal legal system already face heightened risk of COVID-19 infection and the risk is even greater for people with compromised immune system.”

Evans has linear scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that replaces normal tissues with scar tissues and can adversely affect bones, muscles and internal organs, according to the suit.

Jennifer Burrill, the public defender representing Evans who publicly shared that she had contracted the coronavirus herself, said Thursday the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office reached out to her after the ACLU filed its petition and agreed to release Evans.

Evans was also released from serving any future probation related to her original charge, which was forgery, Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz said in a Thursday phone call that officials from the jail and District Attorney’s Office were cooperative with the petition, eliminating the need for a future hearing.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the way this turned out,” she said. “We were anticipating potentially having to litigate it.”

Conditions in the jail, Moskowitz said, put those with preexisting conditions at risk for long-term health complications caused by COVID-19. Inmates have to purchase bars of soap from the commissary and often remain in close contact with one another.

Inmates at the jail have to pay $5 to visit in-house doctors and $7.50 for medication, payments that Moskowitz said creates a dilemma for some in New Mexico’s criminal justice system.

“Nobody should have to choose (soap) over health care because they can’t afford it,” she said.

Santa Fe County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said inmates can still see a doctor even if they do not have the money.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced an order Tuesday to release some nonviolent inmates across the state to lessen the risk to inmates and corrections employees.

District Attorney Marco Serna said his office will continue trying to release at-risk and nonviolent inmates to decrease the number of people in prison and jails. He pointed to Evans’ case as an example of what needs to happen.

“This is the perfect example of where we need to protect this defendant, given that she has the health risk that she does,” he said. “We are not in the business of putting defendants in harm’s way.”