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Study: State’s prisons need $277M in repairs

SANTA FE – Faced with limited state dollars and aging facilities, New Mexico’s state-run prison system has a $277 million backlog of needed infrastructure repairs, according to a legislative report released Thursday.

Identified problems include holes in cell walls and floors, and flawed electrical, plumbing and sewer systems. Some of the problems could pose security threats to both inmates and correctional officers, the Legislative Finance Committee report said.

“The cost of doing nothing is not a viable option given the potential safety threat that declining infrastructure conditions and security needs present to prison staff, inmates and the general public,” the study said.

Instead of tackling the entire maintenance backlog, the LFC report recommended the construction of new housing units for inmates within the current prisons. Building new medium-security units to replace existing ones could save the state roughly $2.6 million over the next 10 years, the report found.

It also claimed such an approach would allow the state Corrections Department to transfer some inmates from privately run prisons back to state-run lockups.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the LFC’s vice chairman, said lawmakers are trying to deal with the issue.

“We’re trying to fix what has happened in the past,” Smith said during Thursday’s hearing in Las Cruces, before committee members took a tour of the 30-year old Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.

Alex Tomlin, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said the agency does not dispute most of the report’s findings.

“We agree that the prison system for years has not kept up with the deferred maintenance,” Tomlin told the Journal. “It’s like a continuous cycle where we can’t get caught up.”

The department is creating a master plan that will look at prison design issues and halfway houses or other alternative living arrangements, Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel wrote in a letter to the legislative committee.

New Mexico’s six state-run prisons – the state also has five privately operated prisons – are more than 36 years old on average.

In all, the estimated dollar amount of the maintenance backlog for New Mexico’s state-run prison system has increased from 2005 to now – from $181 million in 2005 to the current figure of $277 million.

That’s because, during the past decade, New Mexico spent less than half as much on prison maintenance needs as the national average, the LFC report found. Maine and Vermont were the only states to spend less money on prison infrastructure issues during that time, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

Other report findings included:

  • The state’s inmate population has grown more rapidly than expected during the current budget year, with the male inmate population growing by 2.2 percent since July 2013 and the female inmate population increasing by 4.3 percent. As of May 1, there were 3,528 inmates in state-run prisons and 3,325 inmates in private prisons.
  • State-run prisons are currently more expensive to operate – they have a $112 daily cost per inmate, compared with $80 per inmate for private prisons – due to inefficient designs and the type of inmates being housed.
  • Some state capital outlay dollars for prisons have gone unused or been spent inefficiently in recent years, partly because of a lack of planning and oversight.

The state’s six state-run prisons are Penitentiary of New Mexico outside Santa Fe, the Springer Correctional Center, Western New Mexico Corrections Facility in Grants, Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, Southern New Mexico Correctional Center in Las Cruces and Roswell Correctional Center.