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The Bernalillo County Commission approved an order Tuesday night requiring the county jail to take several steps to increase supervision of people locked up in the facility, decrease their time in lockdown, and improve the overall safety conditions there.
The Metropolitan Detention Center has more than a 50% vacancy rate among correctional officers and the administration has called a state of emergency twice this month because there weren’t enough officers to staff critical positions. During one of those times there were only 13 correctional officers and two supervisors scheduled for the shift – meaning eight more were needed to staff essential positions.
Meanwhile, the MDC chief has announced he will retire at the end of the month.
The stipulated order addressing the staffing issues still has to be signed off on by a federal judge. It mandates that the county add 111 people over the next two years – setting benchmarks for how many should be hired each six-month period. It also lays out guidelines for tracking inmate “out-of-cell time,” making improvements to the call button system and allowing attorneys to review video footage from inside the facility.
But correctional officers say the order does not do enough to address the staffing problem.
Joseph Trujeque, the president of the union representing MDC correctional officers, called it a “joke” and said “if the county was serious and they really cared about what was going on at the jail they would say they would hire 100 by the end of the year.”
Only three of the five commissioners were present at the end of the meeting to vote on the order.
Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said the county has been working hard to fix things.
“There are a lot of things outside of our control and we’re between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
Addressing MDC staff as well as people in the jail and their loved ones, commission chair Adriann Barboa said she sees them and hears their concerns.
“Staffing shortages deeply impact the living conditions of incarcerated people and the people that love them are impacted as well,” Barboa said. “I hope we can say we are committed to addressing staffing and the issues so incarcerated people have access to the things they need as well as the staff.”
Will work on a plan
It doesn’t appear that the county knows yet how it will ensure it reaches the staffing goals.
In response to questions, Tia Bland, a county spokeswoman, said “county manager Julie Morgas Baca, MDC Chief Greg Richardson and the union will be meeting soon to work on a plan to address the staffing benchmarks.”
Richardson came to MDC in 2017 and became chief in May 2020. His last day will be June 30.
Bland said an interim chief will be selected to oversee the jail operations while a search is conducted for Richardson’s replacement.
At Tuesday’s meeting – held on zoom – Barboa read an acknowledgement of the chief’s service that praised him for his work in implementing a use of force policy, changing the culture at the jail and leading the effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the building.
“Chief Richardson has served as chief during one of the most difficult times of the facility in light of the pandemic and the resulting staffing crisis,” Barboa said.
The commissioners and county officials applauded Richardson, although he had not attended the meeting.
The county is in the midst of a settlement agreement stemming from the decades-old McClendon lawsuit about conditions at the jail. The agreement requires the county to follow more than 250 requirements regarding mental health services, medical services and confinement.
Taylor Rahn, an attorney representing the county, said the order is a compromise and both parties worked hard to set realistic goals.
Saying “nothing succeeds like success,” Rahn stressed that they hope that as more officers join the ranks it will be easier to retain staff because they won’t be forced to work mandatory overtime and conditions will improve.
Currently, inmates in general population are spending days at a time in their cells on lockdown – meaning they cannot shower or make phone calls – because of a lack of adequate staffing.
“This leads to significant amount of frustration by the inmates and quite frankly it doesn’t give the inmates the incentive to behave because the consequence of misbehaving in general population is being sent to seg (a more restrictive housing unit),” Rahn said. “But if the general population units are being run like a seg unit it does decrease their incentive.”
Ryan Villa, an attorney who represents incarcerated people in the lawsuit, said he is pleased to have reached the agreement and is hopeful that the county can meet the staffing benchmarks. However, he added, he is concerned about whether they will be able to given the way things have been for the past three or four years.
If the county doesn’t follow the order, a federal judge could issue sanctions – like fines – but Villa said it would be better to have those dollars going toward hiring people.
He said it would be an “arduous legal process” but if the county cannot increase staffing one option on the table could be releasing some of the people in the jail.
“I think we don’t have any choice but to consider every option to protect the safety of the folks there,” Villa said. “Not just the safety of the inmates but the safety of the staff.”
‘Slow motion humanitarian crisis’
Last week, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur instructed his attorneys and staff to stop visiting clients at the jail due to concerns about their safety.
“Public defenders want to see their clients but we are so concerned about the situation that we had to make that step,” Baur told the Bernalillo County Commission Tuesday night. “We’re in an unprecedented situation. I see it as a slow motion humanitarian crisis.”
In his address to the commissioners, MDC Sgt. Robert Mason said he has sent letters to commissioners and the county leadership but no one has responded.
“In the email I sent to you all I said people could die. People have died … someone was murdered,” Mason told the commissioners. “The pandemic wasn’t to blame for our staffing issues – the fact is we were already losing staff at greater numbers than we were able to replace them and this was before the pandemic … We no longer can provide a safe and secure environment. People are suffering to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Trujeque said several officers have quit this month and when in-person hearings resume at the court house 12 more officers will be needed just to transport defendants. Right now the vast majority of hearings are held remotely from the jail due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he thinks the county needs to be a lot more aggressive in advertising to recruit correctional officers and needs to increase the base pay and hiring bonuses.
“I talked to maybe 40 officers today and hearing that on the news last night was really demoralizing to everybody,” Trujeque said. “They want to hear their leaders come out and say ‘hey we’re going to hire 100 people by the end of the year, we’re going to do our best and we’re going to try to get everybody relief.’ This is not even trying, this is nothing.”