Behind bars during the pandemic - Albuquerque Journal

Behind bars during the pandemic

Geraldine Altamirano, left, says her daughter Rubina has complained to her about what she says are inhumane conditions at the Springer Correctional Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Geraldine Altamirano)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Women at the Springer Correctional Center weren’t given cleaning rags. Instead, to wash their cells, they had to use menstrual pads and a limited supply of disinfectant spray to wipe down their rooms.

Hearing that her daughter was using her feminine products for cleaning, Geraldine Altamirano fired off a letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking for help and describing the grueling COVID-19 prison conditions her daughter faced.

Her daughter tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 1 and was put in an isolation pod with 33 other women. Altamirano said her daughter, Rubina, wasn’t given any medicine and had to wait 10 days until she received Vitamin D and Zinc supplements.

Her letter went unanswered by Lujan Grisham, but was instead forwarded to the New Mexico Corrections Department. The department gave Altamirano a boiler-plate response, stating that the health of inmates and staff is the utmost priority during the pandemic.

“I’m sorry, it was not accurate,” Altamirano said of the letter. “I knew from talking to her every day. I knew what was going on.”

Despite multiple accounts of inhumane prison conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the department maintains it’s complying with COVID-safe practices. It says it’s giving inmates the proper cleaning supplies, testing them regularly and informing staff of proper protocols.

Last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged that corrections facilities are a tough environment during a pandemic and that it becomes even tougher to prevent spikes in cases when people are living in confined spaces

According to data from the state Department of Health, as of Thursday, 3,315 inmates at prison facilities in New Mexico have contracted COVID-19. That represents more than 2% of the more than 135,000 cases reported in the state since the start of the pandemic. At last report, three inmates have died from complications related to the virus. In all, more than 2,200 New Mexicans have died due to COVID-19.

Eric Harrison, public information officer for the department, said all inmate intakes and all those released are tested for COVID-19. In addition, about 50% of staff and 5% of inmates are being tested weekly. All staff and inmates are also asked COVID-19 screening questions daily.

The department implemented a “direct threat employee policy” that spells out the steps an employee must take if exposed to COVID-19. The policy also holds people accountable if they don’t follow COVID-safe practice, Harrison said.

“We’re always dedicated to public safety but, right now, public safety, and the health and well-being of these folks is imperative,” he said. “And so this policy actually allows us to hold accountable staff who are not following our COVID-safe practices.”

Feeling aggrieved

Despite these reassurances from the Corrections Department, Altamirano wasn’t the only parent concerned about prison conditions.

Monica Lujan’s son is incarcerated in the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility. He, too, complained to his mother that he wasn’t being given cleaning supplies.

In addition, the pods are on lockdown due to the virus and inmates are allowed out once or twice a week for a shower, she said. Lujan said her son was tested only once, via mouth swab, on intake.

While in prison, her son lost his sense of taste and smell, wasn’t feeling well and had headaches – but he was never tested, she said. He’s still wearing the same disposable mask he was given six months ago.

“He’s asked for a medical request form, he still has yet to get a medical request form. He’s asked to speak to his caseworker, he has yet to speak to his caseworker,” she said. “They just keep them locked in their cell.”

Attorney Ryan Villa said what he hears from the government isn’t what he hears from inmates.

Villa is representing the ACLU of New Mexico, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and inmates in a lawsuit against the department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham over COVID-19 conditions in prisons. The case is currently before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

He said inmates are lucky if they get Tylenol and mostly have to buy it themselves if they get sick.

In April, a demonstration at the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe called for the release of inmates in state prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19 cases. Since then, the ACLU of New Mexico, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and inmates have filed a lawsuit claiming conditions of confinement during the pandemic constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Initially, inmates weren’t even given hand sanitizer out of fears it would be abused, and there’s absolutely no way to social distance, he said.

“Someone filed a grievance about a facility’s non-compliance with (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines for prisons,” he said. “And the response was that it was a frivolous grievance.”

The department denied a Journal request for records of inmate grievances concerning COVID-19 conditions. In a statement to the Journal, it cited department policies that it said prevented it from releasing records. It said that it is policy is to keep inmate grievances confidential for prison safety and security.

“If inmates believed that those grievances would be made available to the public, including other inmates, they would likely not file them due to a fear for their own safety and security,” it said. “Such a disclosure of the inmate grievances to you or other members of the public would jeopardize the safety and security of the complaining inmates, chill, if not prevent, the filing of the grievances to the detriment of the department and its inmates, and interfere with inmates’ rehabilitation and subsequent reintegration into society.”

Officers also affected

Inmates aren’t the only ones struggling in state prison facilities during the pandemic.

Robert Trombley, public safety coordinator for the AFSCME Council 18, the union that represents correctional officers, said the state wasn’t prepared for the pandemic. When it first hit in March, he said COVID-19 policies and COVID-19 cases weren’t communicated to correctional officers.

“They were afraid; the department was afraid officers would leave,” Trombley said.

The department is always short-staffed, he said, but it got worse during the pandemic. At the Roswell Correctional Center, there was a point when only 11 of the 30 staff members were working. The rest were out due to COVID-19, he said.

When asked, the department refuted the claim.

According to Trombley, officers soon had to move to 12-hour shifts, putting even more pressure on staff.

One of these officers, Ernie Garcia, decided to end his almost 20-year career with the department in October because of working conditions.

Garcia was a correctional officer at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas. Before COVID-19, he said most officers were regularly working over 40-hour weeks, but things got worse once the pandemic began.

Garcia recalled helping his son move to Arizona for college; he informed his supervisor, who made him quarantine for 14 days. At the end of quarantine and with a negative test, Garcia said he was ready to return to work. However, supervisors told him that, because of a change in policy, he had to do another 14-day quarantine and test negative again before returning to work.

At the end of this second quarantine, Garcia found out he wasn’t paid for the additional 14 days the department made him stay away from work. He said his paycheck was for just a few dollars, and the department maxed out his paid time off and sick leave.

He never got the required quarantine pay that the CARES Act entitles him to.

Some officers are so drained that they don’t have time to properly take care of inmates, he said. When inmates complain, he told them to talk to their families to help improve their conditions. He said most inmates are kept on lockdown due to COVID-19 and the short-staffed department.

“(They) should have called the National Guard a long time ago,” he said. “I really don’t see why they haven’t been at the prison in Los Lunas or the prisons in New Mexico, helping with the vacancy rates, the proper things that need to be done with the COVID … . I feel like they want to stay under the radar. I feel like they do have a lot of things to hide.”

Motherly love

But, for mothers Lujan and Altamirano, their children still have at least a year left on their sentences. To get through the pandemic, they said they wish their children would be given proper medical care.

If she had COVID-19, Altamirano said, she would like more than vitamins to help her through it. If she gets sick, she can go to the pharmacy and get medication, and there’s no reason why inmates shouldn’t also get medication.

In the meantime, the mothers continue to advocate for their incarcerated children.

“There are inmates in there that don’t have family and don’t have a voice for them,” Lujan said. “Just because they’re inmates doesn’t mean they don’t have rights.”

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