ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state Department of Corrections plans to start moving the first of up to nearly 300 violent or predatory sex offenders to a privately run detention facility in Otero County next month — despite objections from lawmakers.
Corrections officials say the move will save money and provide better treatment options for sex offenders “who will be released” at some point.
But the plan is drawing fire from key legislators, who question the wisdom of putting 288 predatory sex offenders in what they described as a “county jail.”
The Legislative Finance Committee also questions whether Utah-based jail operator Management and Training Corp. — no stranger to controversy — can securely house the prisoners and provide the services it says it will for a cost of $71 per day per inmate.
That’s lower than the cost of housing inmates at other private prisons in the state —almost $87 a day — and substantially lower than the $108 a day it costs to house inmates in state-run prisons.
MTC ran into trouble running the Santa Fe and McKinley county jails and it was in charge of the Kingman, Ariz., prison when three prisoners broke out in 2010. Two of them and an accomplice allegedly murdered an Oklahoma couple on vacation in New Mexico before they were recaptured.
Joe Booker, deputy corrections secretary for operations, said the department was aware of the Arizona escape and is confident the facility will be secure.
“We put in the same systems and controls in our contract that Arizona put in place after the escape,” Booker said.
MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said the prison already houses maximum security inmates sent there by the U.S. Marshals Service and other federal agencies.
“The facility is well designed for separating specialized populations,” Arnita said.
Booker said he has toured the facility.
“I’m satisfied with the physical security they have in place,” he said, adding that the corrections officers there, who will be MTC employees, will receive the same training as state corrections officers.
“That’s why we’ll be ramping up slowly, we have to get the officers trained,” he said.
Arnita said that in addition to being certified by the Corrections Department, officers also are trained to standards set by the U.S. Marshals Service.
MTC operates the prison under a contract with Otero County, which owns the facility. It has a capacity of more than 1,300 prisoners and currently has more than 800 federal and local inmates. The 288 New Mexico sex offenders would be confined in a single wing of the facility.
Deputy Corrections Secretary Aurora Sánchez said the department will move about 20 inmates in early March as MTC trains officers and hopes to move a total of 288 sex offenders within a year.
Sánchez said the inmates currently are spread throughout the seven state and privately run prisons in New Mexico and many are held in maximum security cells around the prison system — often for their own protection.
She said the plan to move sex offenders to the Otero County facility was made in part as a response to a Legislative Finance Committee staff report critical of the department last summer.
That report found that too many inmates were serving their parole time inside prison, which costs the state millions of dollars and leads to high recidivism rates.
Because sex offenders are often locked in their cells 23 hours a day, they don’t receive specialized treatment or programs that would help them qualify for parole prior to their release.
Housing them together will make it easier to provide treatment and programs that will lead to parole and reduce chances that the inmates will return to prison, Sánchez said.
Legislative staff were also concerned how the facility would provide treatment and programs at a cost of $71 a day per inmate. That’s even lower than the $75 daily cost of minimum security inmates at the Roswell Correctional Center.
Booker said MTC will provide the same type of treatment available to sex offenders who qualify for restricted minimum security but which is unavailable to those in protective custody.
The department asked for $2.7 million in additional funding in this year’s budget to house the inmates at the Otero County facility. The LFC didn’t approve that funding in its proposed budget and noted several concerns in budget documents.
♦ In 2004, the department entered into a similar contract with Lea County for the private prison operated by another company. In 2007, the facility was found not to be meeting the requirements of the contract and was not providing services the department paid for.
♦ In November, the Corrections Department had 451 empty beds in state and private facilities already under contract that could be used for treatment.
♦ The department has left vacant 40 percent of the mental health counseling staff positions that could be used to provide treatment for sex-offenders.
Sánchez said the number of beds available changes day to day and the available beds are spread across all security levels from minimum to maximum.
The contract with MTC calls for monthly auditing of the Otero facility to make sure inmates are getting the treatment and programs promised, she said.
A full year of operation with 288 inmates would cost the state about $8 million.
Since it’s unlikely lawmakers will approve extra money, Sanchez said the department would pay for the contract out of its budget and with $4 million in reduced payments to other private prisons for failing to meet their contract conditions.
“All these inmates will be released back to society, they are going to get out of prison,” Sánchez said. “It is something we need to do.”
On July 30, 2010, inmates John McCluskey, Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick escaped from the medium security Arizona State Prison near Kingman operated by MTC under a contract with the state of Arizona.
The three were aided by Casslyn Welch, McCluskey’s fiancee and cousin, who threw cutting tools over the fence to the three men, who then cut through the perimeter fence to freedom.
The escape went unnoticed and unreported to police for an undetermined period of time because of alarm system problems, burnt out security lights and other problems with perimeter security.
Renwick. who was serving a life sentence for murder, was arrested two days later in Rifle, Colo., after shooting at police during a chase.
Province, serving a life sentence for homicide and robbery, was taken into custody Aug. 9 in northwest Wyoming.
McCluskey, serving a 15-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault, was arrested with Welch at a campground in eastern Arizona.
McCluskey, Province and Welch are charged in federal court in New Mexico with carjacking and then shooting Gary and Linda Hass, an Oklahoma couple on their way to a camping trip in Colorado.
Their charred bodies were found inside their burned out camper near Santa Rosa.
Federal prosecutors have announced their intention to seek the death penalty for McCluskey.
An investigation into the escape found MTC security at the medium security prison was lacking. Alarm systems didn’t work. Perimeter guards were assigned other duties, and other security issues.
MTC spokesman Arnita said the company took full responsibility for the “incident” in Arizona and identified and corrected any security deficiencies. He said the prison passed its most recent audit by the Arizona Department of Corrections.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal