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Bill to outlaw use of private prisons advances

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – When Hilaria Martinez’s husband was incarcerated at the privately run Otero County Prison Facility, she said he fell ill due to the conditions he was kept in.

Martinez said the prison was kept so cold that her husband was shivering and given only a “baby size blanket” to try to keep warm. The food he was given was almost inedible and the showers had extremely hot water.

She, along with more than 20 other people, spoke in favor of House Bill 40, “The Private Detention Facility Moratorium Act.” Three people spoke in opposition to the bill.

The bill, which passed the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday afternoon, would essentially outlaw the use of privately run prisons and jails, bill sponsor Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, told the committee. She, along with four other lawmakers, sponsored the legislation.

The bill advanced along party lines, with Republican Reps. Randall Pettigrew of Lovington and Stefani Lord of Sandia Park, voting against it. Both cited concerns about the lack of a transition plan away from private prisons and the potential economic impact it would have on towns that house these facilities.

Current contracts with private companies and independent contractors would be allowed to expire, Rubio said. This would give the Corrections Department and counties at least a few years to plan for the transition. Four state prisons are privately run, according to the Corrections Department.

Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said the department opposes the bill in its current form.

She said the bill would result in the loss of 3,000 beds for the department and would mean the department can’t lease prison space in buildings it doesn’t own.

“Although our population is currently at a historic low of 73%, even if every single public bed were to be filled, we would not have enough space to safely house the number of people that are currently incarcerated in the state system,” she said.

Otero County Attorney Michael Eshleman said the county, which is home to the privately run Otero County Prison Facility, opposes the bill as currently written. He said the county issued bonds for $22 million, and a $36 million bond to construct the detention facilities and they don’t expire until 2028.

He asked lawmakers to allow Otero County to continue contracting with the private prison companies until those bonds are paid off since the only revenue the county has to pay those bonds comes from the private prisons, he said.