NM jails dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 cases - Albuquerque Journal

NM jails dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 cases

A woman protests inmates being held in jail amid the pandemic as she drives around the Bernalillo County Public Safety Center in Albuquerque on Friday. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

More than 300 cases of COVID-19 have seeped into jails across the state as inmates at at least one facility revolt over conditions and health officials keep the numbers out of local updates – instead focusing largely on outbreaks at state prisons.

Many detention centers in New Mexico tout strict protocols and their success with treatment as the virus continually spreads within their walls. Attorneys, meanwhile, are fighting to get medically vulnerable clients released.

At the same time, facilities and the New Mexico Department of Health can’t seem to see eye to eye on how many cases they have.

For instance, at San Juan County Detention Center, NMDOH reports an explosion of 206 cases among inmates – 60% of the population – but county officials say the number is actually 144.

And, at the Metropolitan Detention Center, the Health Department reports only seven cases among inmates, but county officials say a recent spike in July has brought the total to 37.

David Morgan, a Health Department spokesman, couldn’t explain the discrepancy, but floated possible causes: reporting delays, case duplications and repeat testing of previous positives.

He said the case totals have not been separated in COVID-19 updates, unlike prison numbers, and are instead rolled into county totals.

“With increasing public interest in these numbers, the department will look to having those numbers more readily available for New Mexicans,” he said.

The situation in jails has gone on rather quietly compared to outbreaks within the New Mexico Department of Corrections – particularly state and federal facilities in Otero County – which have dominated headlines and the attention of local officials.

Lalita Moskowitz, an ACLU attorney who works with inmates statewide, said the trend in jails is even more concerning but, unfortunately, not surprising.

“By nature there’s even more people coming in and out of the jails, for a brief amount of time, who have the potential to bring the virus with them,” Moskowitz told the Journal. “That makes the jail even more problematic in terms of the virus.”

Among other detention centers, NMDOH has recorded 62 cases at Doña Ana County, 20 at McKinley County, 19 at Torrance County, seven at Sandoval County, five at Luna County, three at Santa Fe County, two at Lincoln County, and one each at Hidalgo, Otero, Quay, San Miguel and Valencia counties.

All told, the Health Department has recorded at least 336 cases among inmates.

Moskowitz said the facilities are more prone to becoming hotspots with inmates who are on pretrial detention, serving shorter sentences or going to and from court hearings.

“There are a few solutions that we have proposed and that can help to prevent more of these outbreaks from happening,” Moskowitz said, such as citing people instead of booking them, and releasing people who are eligible.

‘Creating the perfect storm’

Devin Neeley, a spokesperson for San Juan County, said they are aware of 144 cases among inmates and 14 among staff. He said three inmates were hospitalized and 111 inmates have been designated as recovered.

Neeley couldn’t account for their case totals differing from NMDOH, but speculated it could be attributed to the transient nature of the facility.

“We have intakes and we have releases – we have transfers every single day,” he said. “Unlike (Department of Corrections), we can’t shut off our intakes, we are open 24/7, 365.”

He later added, “We don’t decide who comes and goes, we move people based on court order. That person is released despite their COVID status.”

A few weeks ago, inmates set fires and flooded areas of the facility, Neeley said, due to concerns about testing, exposure and not getting enough hot meals.

Sarah Field, a public defender in the area, said those at the facility are at a particular risk coming from San Juan County – one of the regions hit hardest by COVID-19.

“It’s just creating the perfect storm for a difficult situation. The best case scenario would be not to have people in custody and have them quarantined in their own home,” she said.

Field said she has requested release for dozens of her clients, but has secured only one – a woman who was between surgeries, had an open wound and required a walker.

And, Field said, even that release was a battle with the state.

At Doña Ana County Detention Center, the facility with the second-highest case count, Capt. Brian Baker said all but 13 inmates have recovered. Additionally, he said 13 staff members also contracted the virus, but have since recovered.

“We have it pretty under control. A large portion of it is we’re so close to the border and close proximity with El Paso, that both are having significant issues,” he said. “A lot of our intakes are positive on arrival and they are frequently brought in with several other individuals.”

Despite that, Baker said “in many cases,” the facility exceeds the requirements on isolation, quarantine and testing “only to be on the safe side.”

Although the Health Department reports a case total in the single digits, officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center say the facility has seen 37 inmates and 12 staff contract the virus.

Julia Rivera, an MDC spokesperson, said they saw their biggest spike this month, with 30 inmates and five staff testing positive. And 22 of those cases came to light in the past 72 hours.

Rivera said they have been using the same protocols since March, but have NMDOH coming out weekly to do testing. She said the testing is voluntary for staff, but many sign up anyway.

“We can’t force staff to be tested, we encourage them to be tested,” she said. “Staff are very concerned about their own safety.”

Rivera couldn’t say if testing had increased in the past months but, since March, the facility had tested 1,057 inmates and 1,196 staff. She said no one has had to be hospitalized.

“At this juncture, we’ve had 100% recovery among inmates and officers,” she said.

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