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Advocates urge expanded release of prison inmates

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Last week, the governor directed the Corrections Department to begin the early release of some inmates, due to fears of novel coronavirus spreading in prisons around the state.

As of Monday, six days after the order, only 10 inmates had been released from eight prisons, according to the Corrections Department. That leaves about 6,600 in facilities around the state.

No inmates or staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, said Eric Harrison, Corrections Department spokesman.

However, advocates, including defense attorneys and public defenders, say the order does not go far enough in reducing the prison population – and therefore the risk of the virus spreading among inmates and staff remains high.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed a petition against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero, and Melanie Martinez, the director of Probation and Parole, asking the state Supreme Court to order them to drastically reduce the prison population beyond what has already been ordered. The current order applies only to inmates who are less than 30 days away from release and who are serving time on certain charges.

The petition instead asks for the release of inmates who are serving sentences for probation or parole revocation, inmates who are over 60 or with a medical condition that increases their risk of serious illness from COVID-19, pregnant inmates, inmates serving sentences for a nonviolent offenses and any others for whom release might be appropriate.

The petition also asks that the state stop the arrests of people on technical parole violations and increase the regularity and expediency of parole hearings. It proposes the appointment of a special master to oversee the releases or a mediation for the parties to develop a plan to reduce the population.

“The risk to inmates, corrections staff, and the broader community is profound,” ACLU attorneys Lalita Moskowitz and Leon Howard wrote in the petition. “… This Court has the authority and opportunity to stop preventable mass deaths and additional tragedy.”

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