The Journal recently reported that a supervisor at New Mexico’s largest jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), stole thousands of dollars from inmate accounts. For those who work in criminal defense, this story comes as no surprise. Almost anyone who has worked with incarcerated clients has heard stories of “missing” money or “lost” property when people go through the jail system. These stories are not confined to MDC – they have been occurring throughout the state in jails and prisons for decades.
What is surprising about this particular story is that someone has finally decided to care about it. State auditor Brian Colón should be applauded for launching an investigation after receiving a complaint. Importantly, Colón recognized the inmate population is “marginalized” and particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse. However, what Colón failed to make note of is how this kind of corruption also victimizes the taxpayer.
Corruption thrives in prisons and jails because they are closed systems insulated from the public eye. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recommends in its Handbook on Anti-Corruption Measures in Prisons that prisons make a concerted effort to tackle corruption and recognize it as a primary cause of inhumane conditions. The handbook also describes how corruption leads to an endless syphon of public funds, which interferes with an institution’s ability to effect rehabilitation.
In New Mexico, we have a long history of unconstitutional conditions in our prisons and jails where corruption eats away at limited resources. The Sierra County Detention Facility is a poster child for this. In 2015, the Journal reported on a lawsuit that revealed the extent of the problem. A sheriff’s investigation was initiated after a whistleblower revealed staff were having sex with young female detainees in exchange for drugs. Inmate medicines were embezzled, and violent behavior was completely unaddressed. Several lawsuits ensued, costing the taxpayer over a million dollars, and several staff were criminally prosecuted and sent to prison. The jail was eventually closed in response to this corruption. Had it not been for one brave whistleblower, the corrupt practices of that jail would have gone unnoticed.
Another simple example of corruption has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. The endless stream of drugs flowing into our institutions has continued even after facilities were locked down due to the pandemic. Family visits can no longer be blamed for current drug trafficking within our jails, and we must logically accept staff corruption as the primary cause of this continuing problem.
Corruption also exists in the way we provide medical care to our detainees. Unmonitored, multimillion-dollar medical contracts are renewed with companies that consistently fail to provide adequate medical care to prisoners and simply change their name when they get caught. High-ranking Department of Corrections (DOC) whistleblower Dr. Bianca McDermott pointed this out and was fired for her efforts. This October, The Las Cruces Sun reported that McDermott received $1.4 million in settlement of her retaliation claim.
Prisons in New Mexico are particularly likely to have corrosive corruption problems because, unlike other states, there is no independent public oversight. They are also more vulnerable to corruption because management continually denies the existence of the issue. The inescapable conclusion is that there needs to be independent civilian oversight of our prisons. This is not a new idea. In 2007, the Legislature formed a task force to look into it and after a year of debate, concluded there was urgent need for independent oversight with “golden key” access to all our prisons and jails. The DOC fought against such transparency, and no oversight bill was passed.
Without oversight, we are left with the occasional prosecution of a corrupt official. No lasting changes take place, and no improvements to the system are made. In the case of MDC, the theft of inmate property will likely return when the state auditor turns his attention elsewhere. Inmates will continue to suffer, along with the taxpayers.