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21 held at Otero prison test positive for virus

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A group protest from their vehicles outside the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe last month asking for the release of additional inmates from the jails and prisons in the state due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Twenty-one inmates have now tested positive for COVID-19 at the state’s Otero County Prison facility in Chaparral, New Mexico, southeast of Las Cruces. In the same building, but in separate wings, 38 people being held by federal authorities have also tested positive.

Eric Harrison, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said that last Friday a 31-year-old inmate said he was feeling ill, and was put into medical separation and tested at the prison run by the Management and Training Corporation.

“Later that evening, medical staff determined that additional medical services were required and he was transported to the University Hospital in El Paso, Texas,” Harrison wrote in a news release. “The test result returned positive.”

It was the first case of COVID-19 among inmates held by the state Corrections Department.

Although the department announced last Friday that a correctional officer at the same facility had tested positive, Harrison said they don’t believe the two cases are related. He said they are still conducting contact tracing to determine how the inmate got the virus.

He said the prison facility is divided into four distinct wings, with state prisoners held in the east and west, and federal prisoners held in the north and south. In addition to the 38 federal inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, 43 people have the virus at the nearby Otero County Processing Center run by Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, according to a spokeswoman for the governor’s office.

In other parts of the state, two people held by federal agencies at the Cibola County Correctional Center near Grants, and one person held by federal agencies in the Torrance County Detention Facility near Estancia also have COVID-19, said Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Harrison said after the first inmate tested positive at the Otero County Prison facility they tested all inmates in the same housing unit and anyone who had distant contact or shared space.

“A total of 133 inmates were tested. Results for these additional tests began coming in today, with 20 new inmates producing positive results,” Harrison wrote in the news release. “The remaining 112 were negative and one test is still pending.”

Harrison said inmates who tested positive have been separated from the general population and are under medical observation. He said the Corrections Department is working with the Department of Health to test all inmates held by the state in the facility, which has a capacity of 647.

Defense attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico have been pushing for the release of some inmates to lessen the chance of COVID-19 spreading in jails and prisons. Although 40 inmates have been released early around the state in response to the governor’s executive order, none came from Otero County Prison, Harrison said.

In early May, the state Supreme Court rejected a petition from the ACLU, the state Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asking the justices to order Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to release additional inmates.

Margaret Strickland, immediate past president of NMCDLA who has a law firm in Las Cruces, said she knows federal public defenders who have been told their clients at the Otero County Prison facility have COVID-19.

“This is what we have all been afraid of and why attorneys have pressed for their client’s release,” Strickland said. “COVID-19 in jails is extremely dangerous. We need to work to get non-violent offenders out of these facilities before it is too late.”

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