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Inmates fear surge in virus cases

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In a phone call from the Santa Fe Penitentiary, Vincent Delara tells his wife that if he’s going to die, he would rather die at home. Currently behind bars on a probation violation, the 43-year-old suffers from diabetes, sleep apnea and autoimmune deficiencies.

“My husband, if you were to look at him you’d probably say he’s not afraid of much,” Kim Delara told the Journal. “But he’s been in tears a few times, it’s just hard. And he’s not the only one going through this.”

Many prisoners are in fear as COVID-19 cases among detainees, at least 149 as of Friday, surge in state and federal facilities across New Mexico. And some local attorneys and advocates say they believe the number is actually much higher due to limited testing, lack of protection and crowded facilities.

Officials at the New Mexico Department of Corrections say they are boosting testing and protocols to prevent the spread in their prisons but the agencies that oversee the federal facilities – U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – have remained largely mum on the issue.

As of Thursday, the New Mexico Department of Health reported 108 cases at federal facilities and 41 at state prisons.

The lion’s share of cases among detainees are concentrated in Otero County with 66 at the ICE Processing Center and 79 at the neighboring Prison Facility.

The Prison Facility, which houses federal and local detainees, has 39 cases among federal detainees and 40 among state detainees.

Of other federal facilities, there are two cases at the Cibola County Correctional Center and one at the Torrance County Detention Facility. There is also one case at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, a state prison, in Valencia County.

There were also five positive cases among staff members at state facilities, two at Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center and one each at Otero Prison, Western New Mexico Correctional Facility and Guadalupe County Correctional Facility.

Plan to test all inmates

State prison officials say they are doing their best.

Eric Harrison, a New Mexico Corrections spokesman, said the department is boosting prevention measures across the board and trying to lessen the risk at Otero County Prison, the epicenter of the outbreak.

To that end, 39 inmates were moved from the facility, after being tested, to the Santa Fe Penitentiary to make more room available at Otero Prison.

Harrison said all inmates and staff at Otero have been tested in the past week. Some results are pending.

All inmates who tested positive have been separated into a designated COVID-19 unit. One has been hospitalized in El Paso and, so far, the rest are asymptomatic and under “medical observation.”

Harrison said to protect the other 10 facilities from a similar situation every incoming inmate is automatically tested and quarantined. NMCD is working with the NMDOH toward a goal of testing all inmates statewide over the next few weeks.

He said inmates were given a reusable cloth mask three weeks ago, but NMCD is planning to hand out a second round of masks. Staff are required to wear protective gear and will be continually screened and tested as time goes on, with Harrison calling the process “a long term thing.”

“The staff are the ones that could pose the threat to the inmates, they could be the ones bringing the virus,” he said. “But I think that our staff has done a good job, and they really care about the well-being of the inmate population.”

Positive cases in solitary

Attorney Margaret Strickland called testing protocols at the Otero County Prison Facility “unfathomable” and may be resulting in unreported cases.

Strickland, former president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said her client – a federal inmate with underlying medical conditions – has headaches and trouble tasting and smelling. Up until recently, he shared a pod with those who tested positive.

But, she said, the facility won’t test him until he has a fever.

“He tells me the same is true for others,” Strickland said. “… Everybody in the jails and prisons should’ve been tested by now, we’ve got the tests.”

She said federal detainees are also wary of being tested as positive cases are placed in solitary confinement units – usually a form of punishment – since the medical units filled up.

Strickland said a priority should be on releasing those accused of nonviolent crimes.

“The No. 1 concern is jail reduction for anybody that can get out of jail, people we’re not afraid of, people who aren’t violent,” Strickland said.

Like many attorneys, Strickland is trying to get her client out of the facility on a GPS monitor and other conditions. She said few have had success.

“It is tragic that so many detainees are being forced to live under very dangerous conditions during the pandemic,” she said. “… The pandemic is another highlight of the high price we pay for our broken criminal justice system. I hope we get some relief soon.”

‘They kept it crowded’

Joachim Marjon, an immigrant rights attorney, said it’s been radio silence from ICE officials in charge of the Otero County Processing Center.

Marjon, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union, said they reached out to local and federal officials in February about their plans to prevent an outbreak at the facility.

“We basically got stonewalled,” he said. “The governor expressed desire, empathy, but said that she had no power to act on it.”

Since then, Marjon said they have filed lawsuits asking for the release of three medically-vulnerable detainees. One has since been released.

But Marjon said he receives calls from dozens of detainees at the facility describing the crowded conditions, flimsy cloth masks and a lack of hand soap. Those inside say the positive cases that get taken to medical have not returned with no word on their fate.

“They are people that are terrified,” he said. “They want the world to know what is going on.”

Since the outbreak, Marjon said the facility has released some people on monitoring and release conditions, but he doesn’t know how many. Either way he said it was “too little too late.”

“We saw it coming and they kept it crowded, transferred people from different facilities and dormitory to dormitory …” he said. “Every time you’re exposing new people into these environments, it’s like exposing bacteria into a petri dish.”

DHS to conduct review

In April a letter was sent from all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation demanding a review from the acting director of ICE after an employee and detainee tested positive at the Otero County facility.

A spokesperson for Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall said the delegation never received a response to that letter, but a second letter, sent April 28 to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, did garner a response.

The DHS said it would conduct a review and “remote inspection” of ICE’s efforts managing the pandemic at its facilities with plans to release a final report this summer.

A joint statement from Heinrich and Udall called the response a “good first step” and said they expect the IG’s review to be “fully transparent and thorough.”

“And we will be closely watching to ensure that ICE follows OIG’s recommendations to protect the health and safety of the detainees, facility staff, and of New Mexico’s communities,” the joint statement read.

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