Of 26 jails across New Mexico, five were recently found to have staff vacancy rates above 50%.
In order to cope, one of them – Otero County Detention Center, which is half staffed with 32 employees – has started transporting inmates to other facilities, including one in Texas 160 miles away.
Otero County Attorney R.B. Nichols said the jail’s correctional officer vacancy rate reached a critical point two weeks ago when there were not enough officers to walk the floor among the inmates.
That led the administration to request help from other facilities. Five agreed to house more than 100 inmates between them.
Those facilities include the Otero County Prison Facility (60 miles from Otero County Detention Center); the Lincoln County Detention Center (62 miles away); the Doña Ana County Detention Center (66 miles away); the Luna County Detention Center (132 miles away); and the Hudspeth County Jail in Sierra Blanca, Texas (166 miles away).
The jail tried to keep inmates who are going to trial soon in Otero County, Nichols said. But inmates at other facilities have missed hearings, including ones held remotely.
“There was some kind of confusion on where they were and what the responsibilities were of the facilities that took them on,” said Nichols. “There were a lot of logistics that come with it – it’s not ideal. We’re working through those difficulties trying to do the best we can.”
Dayna Jones, Otero County’s supervising attorney with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said the change has sparked confusion among her colleagues, their clients and clients’ family members, who were given no warning that people would be moved.
Jones said the phones at her office are blowing up with people asking how they can contact their incarcerated relatives or how they can put money in their accounts. The move has also proven challenging for attorneys.
“We can’t get hold of a lot of our clients,” Jones said. “Luna County Detention Center in particular has actually failed to produce our clients for several of their hearings in the past week. Things that are very important to people’s lives and to the administration of the legal system just aren’t even occurring because they’ve been shipped to other places without the infrastructure in place to actually keep the process going and to allow them to communicate with us.”
Officials with the Luna County Detention Center did not respond to calls from the Journal.
Scot Key, the 12th Judicial District Attorney, said understaffing at the jail is a major concern but – as with many of the issues with the pandemic – his office is learning to adapt.
“There is serious understaffing currently in law enforcement, education, nursing, and now we learn with corrections, both on the state level and at the county level,” he wrote in a statement.
Staffing crunches are widespread
While the Otero County Detention Center is the only jail that has had to take such drastic steps, the staffing situation has become dire in many other facilities around the state.
New Mexico Counties, an organization that represents counties in the state, found that in May 2021 nearly all the statewide detention positions across the state were filled. A year later, 40% of the positions were vacant.
Joining the Otero County Detention Center with vacancy rates of more than 50% are jails in Bernalillo, Chaves and Curry counties, as well as the Bernalillo County juvenile detention center. Grace Philips, general counsel at New Mexico Counties, said the situation is unprecedented.
“We’ve had facilities in the past, on occasion, that have had staffing issues,” she said. “But … this extreme vacancy level and so widespread is not something that we’ve seen before.”
As of Aug. 1, 14 of the county jails had staff vacancy rates above 20%.
“I think the problem with having high vacancy rates in a jail is it becomes much harder to recruit anybody because they’re concerned about working in an understaffed secure facility,” Philips said. “I think it’s a problem that contributes to itself.”
She added that New Mexico is not alone in seeing high vacancy rates among correctional officers, and detention centers are not alone in facing a staffing crunch as many places – from police departments to restaurants to grocery stores – are understaffed.
In Otero County, both the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office report not having the employees they need.
‘A problem of over incarceration’
To entice applicants and get current correctional officers to stay, the Otero County Commission recently approved raises at the jail.
Nichols said the hourly rate went from about $15 to $19 and the county is also offering $1.20 an hour extra in hazard pay for the next six months, as well as new hire bonuses and referral bonuses. He said that, since then, there have been three new applicants.
But Bennett Baur, chief public defender, speculated that, as more jails try to boost staffing by raising pay and offering bonuses, they’re going to be pulling from the same pool of applicants.
“I don’t know that they’re going to increase the number of people … interested in working in corrections,” Baur said. “The fact that it’s statewide really shows that it’s not a problem of understaffing, but it’s a problem of over incarceration.”
Most people in jail are awaiting trial, facing a probation violation or failed to appear at court hearings.
The public defender’s office has been trying to keep people out of jail for years by addressing “de-felonization of drug possession” in the state Legislature, Baur said.
However, District Attorney Key said bail reform over the past several years has made it “very hard to keep deserving people in jail.”
“I would say that … if one finds himself or herself in jail these days, you have to have exhibited such dangerousness and flight behaviors that, even with bail reform, you deserve to be in jail,” he said.