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SANTA FE – Top New Mexico corrections officials faced questions Thursday about stubbornly high employee vacancy rates and half-empty prisons, even as state funding for the agency overseeing the prison system has increased in recent years.
During a meeting of a key legislative panel in Taos Ski Valley, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, asked Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero whether some state-run prisons should be shut down due to a recent drop in inmate population.
“It looks to me, just generally speaking, like we have too many facilities,” said Lundstrom, who is the chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has opposed closing prisons in part due to the possible impact to local economies, and the state has taken over operations over the last three years of privately run prisons in Clayton, Santa Rosa and Grants. Lujan Grisham also signed a 2020 executive order allowing some inmates to be released early from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, Tafoya Lucero said prison officials have closed housing units in some prisons, with the overall prison inmate population currently at about 70% of capacity despite a recent increase in prison admissions.
Overall, however, the state’s total prison population is projected to continue declining – from an average of 5,703 inmates during the most recent budget year to an average of 5,513 over the course of the current year.
Tafoya Lucero also acknowledged the Corrections Department has faced challenges when it comes to corrections officer staffing levels, with the agency’s vacancy rate now at 31% – or higher than it was two years ago – despite salary increases that have bumped starting pay for corrections officers to $21.49 per hour.
“I do think there’s a ton of competition right now that’s taking place between all law enforcement agencies” for new recruits, Tafoya Lucero told lawmakers.
That explanation did not appear to assuage all concerns, however, as some legislators said chronic staffing shortages have led to overworked employees and morale issues.
“I know the inmate population is down, but you have a lot of vacancies,” said Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo.
Meanwhile, corrections officials also acknowledged Thursday that data flaws in recent years have led to some inaccurate recidivism rate figures, but said they have corrected the issue.
While the number of released inmates who are reincarcerated within 36 months of their release has declined from 54% two years ago to 37% in the just-ended budget year, legislative analysts said some past figures reported by the Corrections Department might be off due to a database error.
That prompted criticism from Rep. Phelps Anderson, a Roswell independent, who said he was “dismayed” by the agency’s reporting.
In response, Tafoya Lucero said the department is working to change how recidivism is measured, as the state’s definition currently includes released inmates who abscond from supervision.
But she also expressed discontent with the current recidivism levels, saying, “That is not an acceptable number.”
Other top Corrections Department officials said Thursday they have worked to bolster programming for inmates and shifted more funding to transitional housing, due to rising housing prices and scarce real estate availability in some parts of New Mexico.
But a Legislative Finance Committee report said cost savings generated by high vacancy rates and reduced inmate populations have generally not been pumped back into programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
Instead, the money has either been spent on equipment, increased contract costs or gone unspent, according to the LFC report, leaving spending on recidivism reduction programs largely flat.
That’s despite the fact the Corrections Department’s overall budget has increased by $14.9 million – or about 4.6% – over the last five years.
The agency’s budget for the current year is set at $326.7 million.
• Guadalupe County Correctional Facility (Santa Rosa) – 40%
• Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility (Clayton) – 45%
• Penitentiary of New Mexico (Santa Fe) – 76%
• Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (Las Cruces) – 82%
• Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (Los Lunas) – 54%
• Roswell Correctional Center – 91%
• Springer Correctional Center – 60%
• Otero County Prison Facility (Chaparral) – 94%
• Lea County Correctional Facility (Hobbs) – 85%