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Editorial: Otero complex staff, inmates deserve safe work, living conditions

State health officials tried to shed some light this week on an out-of-control outbreak of COVID-19 at a southern New Mexico prison campus, but it’s doubtful families of inmates and staff are satisfied with the answers.

And they shouldn’t be.

According to the latest numbers, 848 inmates and detainees have COVID-19 at the Otero County prison campus, which separately houses federal and state inmates. That number includes 427 state inmates, 275 federal inmates and 146 federal detainees, all located at the complex outside Chaparral, between Las Cruces and El Paso.

By contrast, only three state inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at other state prisons, one at each facility; only 35 federal inmates outside Otero County’s facilities, again at three sites, have COVID-19.

It remains a mystery why cases have skyrocketed at the Otero County complex since early May when a staff member tested positive. The first inmate started showing symptoms on May 15, and the virus has grown to the point that 76% of state inmates there have contracted COVID-19. Eight of the prison’s state inmates are currently hospitalized, while three others have died related to the virus. Three federal inmates are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The Journal has learned the virus has spread through the prison staff, with 21 employees at the federal unit and three at the state unit contracting COVID-19.

State officials said Wednesday that corrections officials are “doing everything they can” to slow the spread, but that does exactly zero to assuage valid concerns of the families of inmates and staffers. Health Secretary Dr. Kathy Kunkel and epidemiologist Dr. Chad Smelser said the Health Department is pleased much of the outbreak is contained to the single prison campus in Otero County, but having the equivalent of a leper colony is hardly good public policy. How can you send an inmate there in good conscience, and who on Earth would apply for a job at a prison where more than three-fourths of the inmates have COVID-19? How will the complex be able to maintain staffing levels amid this out-of-control outbreak?

State officials accused federal authorities of not being sufficiently aggressive with testing and standards at their two facilities. But since authorities at the federal facilities have not laid out their policies and procedures, we have no idea what they are, or are not, doing. And there is no excuse for the feds and state not to be working closely since their inmates share the campus – and the outbreak is affecting all three facilities.

The rapid spread through the state facility is puzzling given the state’s other prisons have so far contained the virus – again, just one COVID-19 case each at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Valencia County, the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Cibola County and the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe County.

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said officials at the Otero prison have implemented face coverings, increased sanitation and implemented daily screening for incoming staff and social distancing “when possible.” The Corrections Department is conducting weekly testing of all staff and testing inmates in isolated units every two to three days. Kunkel said officials continue to look for additional infection control techniques and solicit outside advice, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham conceded during a news conference Thursday that once a facility becomes infected with the coronavirus, there are “very few strategies to manage it.” Moreover, a spokesman for the Corrections Department says that although inmates with COVID-19 have been separated from inmates without the virus, it’s likely the virus has again infiltrated the negative inmate population.

Inmates, families of inmates, staff members and their relatives deserve real answers and real action, real fast. These inmates are someone’s child, sibling, parent; these staff members go home to their families every day. All deserve a safe living/working environment. Clocking in, awaiting adjudication or serving a debt to society should never be a de facto illness or death sentence.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.