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MDC continues to struggle with virus outbreaks

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

With hundreds of COVID-19 cases springing up in just weeks, the Bernalillo County jail is scrambling to control spread and asking police, when possible, to minimize arrests as defense attorneys protest the lack of communication with inmates.

The largest jail in the state, the Metropolitan Detention Center, has 561 staff and 1,386 inmates.

Officials say there are currently 307 active cases among inmates and 43 among staff at MDC. They recorded only one new case Friday.

The facility has had an explosion of 343 cases in the past two weeks – 82% of the 414 they’ve had since the pandemic began.

“We’re doing the very best that we can to mitigate (the situation) and we’re working with (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (the Department of Health) on a continuous basis,” MDC spokeswoman Julia Rivera said, adding that there have been no hospitalizations.

Rivera said the outbreak at the facility was first detected in the intake pods. Since then, she said community spread has overtaken the general population.

“It was in the intake pods, but there’s no way to know for sure who is patient zero,” she said.

Rivera said recently booked inmates are housed in intake pods and tested every five to seven days. Although she couldn’t give an exact number, she said facilitywide testing has been done at least once a week throughout the pandemic.

Right now, she said, results come back in 24-48 hours, but officials have been speaking with the Department of Health on possibly getting faster results.

“We’re also looking at other facilities that are in the same size range as us … as to what they’re doing and what their best practices are,” she said.

Rivera said the whole facility is on a level-three lockdown, which means “limited movement,” but some of the sections affected by community spread may have more restrictions. Aside from the recent additions of disinfecting foggers, she said, they haven’t made any more changes to operations.

Rivera said MDC has also reached out to law enforcement for help with lowering intakes.

“We didn’t ask them to not arrest people, we asked them to use discretion,” she said.

Harold Medina, Interim Chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, said the jail called APD a few days ago to advise them of the situation and asked if they could “work with them” on bookings.

Medina said they came to the agreement that low-level crimes could be handled with citations and they would arrest only felony or violent offenders. He said area commanders let their officers know that they could “use discretion” on whether to book someone on a misdemeanor.

But Medina said the warrant roundups that have netted more than 200 offenders since August – some on misdemeanor arrests – will continue.

“Our city is at the point right now where the public wants crime rates to go down, they want results and, quite frankly, I think they deserve those results,” he said.

Medina would not speculate as to whether such large operations have contributed to the dire situation at the jail.

“It’s possible, we just don’t know,” he said.

Medina later added, “If warrant roundups are showing that our crime rates are going down based on a lot of categories, we’re going to continue them.”

Jail records show that, despite the guidance, misdemeanor bookings have gone on.

On Thursday, an APD officer arrested and booked a woman on misdemeanor warrants stemming from a criminal trespass and sleeping in parks after hours.

There were at least nine other arrests for misdemeanor warrants on traffic violations and shoplifting in the past few days, including the arrest of a 52-year-old woman on a Roswell warrant from 2001.

As jail officials struggle to get a handle on matters, attorneys worry about their clients on the inside as lines of communication go quiet.

Before the pandemic, Christopher Knight, a managing attorney at the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said he would visit clients at MDC three times a week to go over cases.

After that stopped, he said video visitation – where an inmate used a tablet to speak with an attorney and go over evidence – became the next best thing.

Now, the recent outbreak has shut that down, as well, Rivera said, “due to the confined space the tablets are in.” She said inmates are still able to speak with attorneys through email and phone calls, but attorneys calling in to speak with a client is “a different story.”

Knight said that leaves attorneys with no “meaningful” contact.

“Right now, it’s radio silence,” he said. “We’re told it’s cut off till Monday and we’ll see because MDC is pretty much on fire right now.”

Knight said clients may still have phone privileges, but with only a few phones in each pod and restrictions on movement, options are limited. Even so, he said it’s difficult to discuss visual evidence or create a rapport over the phone.

As an attorney, Knight said, “it’s operating essentially with one arm tied behind your back.” He said the issues will, at the very least, lead to continuances on all trial settings and possibly have a negative effect on a client’s defense.

“Everyone in that jail right now has an attorney that they need to be speaking with, and that’s not happening right now,” he said. “It’s a scary situation at the jail right now – it’s terrifying and extremely frustrating if you’re an inmate not able to talk with your attorney.”

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