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Otero prison cases out of control

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It began in early May when officials learned a staff member at the Otero County prison tested positive for COVID-19.

“We asked that individual to be removed from shift, and then we traced their activity,” said New Mexico Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero.

Then on May 15, the first inmate started showing symptoms.

From there, cases skyrocketed to more than 400 inmates – or 76% – and the prison seems unable to shake the virus. Eight inmates are now hospitalized, and three inmates from that prison have died.

State health and corrections officials conceded Wednesday during an online briefing that all they can do is try to slow the spread.

Health Secretary Dr. Kathy Kunkel said she believes that state corrections officials are “doing everything they can” despite the staggering number of cases.

“When you have a dorm style, cots 3 feet apart, it’s almost impossible to overcome it,” she said, adding that officials continue to look for additional infection control techniques and solicit outside advice.

Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Chad Smelser called it a “very sneaky virus.”

“It’s efficient at moving around in populations, and it’s particularly good at the congregate setting such as this,” he said. “If you asked me, ‘Would you be able to fully control it in a setting like this?’ my answer would always be, I highly doubt it. I think you do your best and be very aggressive.”

Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, New Mexico. (Nathan J. Fish/Sun-News)

Protocols and problems

During the briefing, Smelser, Kunkel and Tafoya Lucero outlined protocols in use, population reductions and difficulties they’ve faced, including a lack of cooperation from federal agencies that share the Otero County Prison Facility and run other prisons in the state.

Smelser and Kunkel praised the aggressive testing being done by NMCD – over 5,000 tests statewide – and said Health Department is pleased that much of the outbreak is in one facility.

And to help make space and mitigate spread, Tafoya Lucero said the Corrections Department, at 80% capacity, has set a goal to reduce the population to 75% by the end of July through reviewing technical parole violators for re-parole consideration and working with county jails to explore “options for relocation.”

In one such move, the department transferred 39 inmates from Otero County to the Penitentiary of New Mexico. As for the parole review, Tafoya Lucero said officials have released 71 inmates and “continue to review individuals every day and release people that meet those criteria.”

The department is conducting weekly testing of all staff and testing inmates in isolated units every two to three days.

Since March, Tafoya Lucero said, officials have implemented face coverings, increased sanitation, daily screening for incoming staff and social distancing “when possible.” They isolate inmates, asymptomatic from symptomatic, positive from negative and those who have recovered.

Staffers who work in the medical wing – with both state and federal inmates – are isolated from the rest of the facility, and those who transport inmates to hospitals follow a “very robust” protocol, which includes quarantining in “COVID-hotels” before they return.

But, Tafoya Lucero said of staffers, “they definitely socialize with one another – sometimes they’re roommates, or they carpool together.

“While we’ve done everything we can do to separate the two populations, there is still that human factor of people spending time with one another,” she said.

Shared campus, spread

With Otero County Prison Facility being an unenviable model of virus spread in state prisons, the facility also shares its property and out-of-control infection rate with the U.S. Marshals and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s Otero County Processing Center.

There are 275 cases among federal inmates at the Otero County Prison and 146 among detainees at the federal Otero County Processing Center.

Although the state and federal agencies see the same issues, state corrections officials say the response has been much different. Multiple spokespeople with the private company that runs the federal facility and the U.S. Marshals Service did not respond to numerous questions and messages seeking comment.

“We’re trying to work and engage with them, get them on board to do the same types of things that we are doing,” Tafoya Lucero said, adding she also asked federal agencies to halt inmate transfers into locations with COVID-19 cases and to not allow staff to “crisscross” between the federal facilities.

For instance, Kunkel said DOH provided standards and more than 500 kits to Otero County Processing Center with the expectation that they would adapt the “aggressive testing” seen at NMCD, but “that has not been the case.”

“We are supporting them, but the federal government could much more easily and much more effectively step in and protect these populations,” she said.

Kunkel said she believes the most effective intervention could come from New Mexico’s congressional delegation as the DOH “doesn’t have that type of clout.”

“With the federal facilities, in all honesty, we’ve had more difficulty with communication,” Smelser said.

Federal inmates ‘scared’

Attorney Margaret Strickland, in an interview with the Journal, said two of her clients, both federal inmates at Otero County Prison, caught the virus.

“They are very scared,” she said.

Strickland has been told guards in the federal facility are going between pods without changing gloves or disinfecting and distributed one mask per inmate but with no opportunity to wash them. She said they have increased testing, but that was only recently.

Her biggest concern now is the lack of information as she tries to secure release for her clients, who are behind bars on nonviolent charges.

“Your clients call you to find out what’s going on, and you say, ‘I don’t know and I don’t have any way to find reliable information for you,’ ” she said.

Strickland added, “We were assured that everything was OK, we didn’t have anything to worry about … and now there’s been this huge outbreak and we’re still getting the same line, that everything’s OK.”

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