Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Prison populations have dramatically decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, there was a push to lower population levels in these congregate living settings, and now as the pandemic comes to an end, it’s unclear whether these numbers will rise again.
The pandemic caused a historic low for inmate populations in the past 20 years for New Mexico, said Eric Harrison, New Mexico Department of Corrections spokesman.
Currently, the department is at a 74% occupancy rate, Harrison said. This means there are 5,662 inmates incarcerated with the department at this time.
An executive order required the Corrections Department to lower the prison populations, which included early release for some inmates. As of Friday, 532 inmates were released under this order since April 2020, Harrison said.
“What you see across the nation is a policy shift around corrections which refocuses on reduction of populations and the treatment and opportunities for successful reintegration,” Harrison said. “You see this national change, and our state is sort of shifting policy in that same direction.”
Pre-pandemic, the department was hovering around an 87% occupancy rate, he said, with a 100% occupancy level being 7,645 inmates.
However, some of the state’s privately run prisons are raising concerns with the population reduction.
The Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, which is run by private prison company GEO Group, recently asked to renegotiate its contract. GEO Group and other private prison operators are typically paid based on the number of occupied beds at their facilities.
The Guadalupe County facility had just a 42% occupancy rate, with only 252 inmates being held at a prison that has a capacity of 590 inmates.
But Harrison said there are no current plans for the state to take over operations of the prison, or to close it.
Throughout the pandemic, the department was hovering around the 75% occupancy rate mark, according to a New Mexico Sentencing Commission report. Projected incarceration is continuing to decline, with about 5,539 inmates projected by December 2021.
The commission report stated new inmate “admissions will likely decrease from current levels,” and parole admissions have also shown a downward trend.
Douglas Carver, New Mexico Sentencing Commission deputy director, said the population began trending downward pre-COVID. He said the trend was likely accelerated due to the pandemic, but it’s hard to say definitively.
The commission is currently working on a new projection, Carver said, which will come out in July.
He added that there could be an incarceration backlog due to the pandemic and the pause in jury trials, which wouldn’t appear until next year’s projections. It takes about a year to 18 months for changes to pop up in the forecast, he said.
“We might not know what the post-COVID environment truly looks like until next year,” he said. “To see whether post-COVID is going to bend the curve back up, and how steeply, or whether it does at all.”
Lalita Moskowitz, New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, said permanent inmate population reduction is essential. She said the ACLU is urging the state to reduce mass incarceration in general.
“The fact that this pandemic resulted in a reduction of the prison population is maybe a silver lining to this difficult time,” she said. “And we would hope, be an opportunity to continue that trend rather than to go back to business as usual.”
Throughout the pandemic, Moskowitz said the ACLU was advocating for some of these executive order measures to continue after the pandemic ends to keep prison populations down, one of those being the early release of incarcerated inmates.
Moskowitz said there’s actually a state statute that allows early release – regardless of the pandemic.
The law states the department can place inmates within 12-months of parole eligibility in a community-based setting, under the adult community corrections fund. Inmates without a firearm offense are eligible for this program.
“That statute hasn’t been used in the past by the Corrections Department, but it exists,” she said. “And that would be an opportunity to continue these releases a little bit early.”
In addition, the ACLU is also advocating for probation and parole to stop putting people back in prison for technical violations. A technical violation is any violation that doesn’t include committing a new crime, such as a missed appointment.
Based on current estimates, about a third of the inmate population is incarcerated on a technical parole or probation violation, Moskowitz said. A change in this procedure alone would significantly reduce the prison population.
“This pandemic really highlighted what is already wrong in our criminal system,” she said. “And it’s already true that mass incarceration was a public health crisis.”
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed reporting.