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State corrections chief stepping down

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel

SANTA FE – New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel, who has run the state’s historically troubled prison system for the past five years, is stepping down from the post at the end of this month.

In a statement released Friday by Gov. Susana Martinez’s office, Marcantel said he needs to spend more time with his ailing mother, who lives in Louisiana.

“Thanks to Gov. Martinez’s leadership, we have made New Mexico a leader in prison reform,” Marcantel said. “I leave this post knowing we have made New Mexico’s neighborhoods safer.”

Marcantel, who had struggled to secure funding increases for an agency beset by chronic understaffing and high employee turnover, with the possibility of additional budget cuts on the horizon, was facing increasing discontent among corrections officers.

Corrections officers at several state-run prisons have overwhelmingly voted “no confidence” in Marcantel – 404-31 is the running total – in secret ballot votes held in recent weeks, a spokesman for the labor union that represents officers said Friday.

As head of the state’s Corrections Department, Marcantel took some unorthodox steps, including a 48-hour stint in solitary confinement at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe in 2014 that was aimed at getting a better feel for the controversial prison tactic.

“I’m glad I did it,” he said after the experience. “But I’m not going to do it again.”

He also pushed a plan to open up the “Old Main” prison, the site of a bloody 1980 prison riot, as a public museum of sorts, complete with regular tours, a restaurant and a gift shop staffed by inmates.

Although Marcantel was a staunch advocate of job-training programs aimed at reducing inmate recidivism rates, his decision to place himself in solitary confinement instead of in the shoes of corrections officers was not well-received by rank-and-file officers, said Miles Conway, communications director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico.

“The public image of the Corrections Department was really the priority,” said Conway, who added that the union respects Marcantel’s decision to spend more time with his mother.

Gang threats

In addition to employee morale issues, Marcantel encountered plenty of other challenges during his five-year tenure.

The prison gang Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico plotted last year to kill Marcantel and two other top prison officials, according to a federal indictment unsealed earlier this year. The plot was ultimately foiled by authorities.

And Marcantel had to deal with the fallout of a high-profile March incident in which two violent inmates escaped from a prison transport van that had stopped to refuel in Artesia and were gone for hours before anyone noticed. After a frantic manhunt, the two inmates were apprehended separately days later in Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, budgetary issues were a recurring theme.

Marcantel implored lawmakers last year to provide more money for the agency to hire corrections officers, saying staffing levels at state-run prisons were dangerously low and pay rates for officers were among the nation’s lowest.

“I’m competing with McDonald’s,” Marcantel said at one point during his testimony.

As of last summer, five of the state’s six state-run prisons had staff vacancy rates of 20 percent or higher – the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility outside Las Cruces was the only one that did not – and starting corrections officer pay was just $13.65 an hour in most cases.

Although the Legislature provided funding for salary hikes for starting corrections officers during this year’s 30-day regular session, the Corrections Department is now facing the prospect of 1.5 percent budget cut – or nearly $4.5 million – under a bill passed during a just-ended special session.

Marcantel receives a salary of nearly $124,000 a year as corrections chief. A former Marine, he worked for years in the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and then in the state Department of Public Safety before being appointed corrections secretary in 2011.

Martinez, who appointed Marcantel to the post, lauded his performance as corrections secretary.

“Secretary Marcantel is a man of integrity who has worked tirelessly to keep New Mexicans safe,” the two-term Republican governor said in a Friday statement. “Under his leadership, we’ve taken a tough, but smart, approach to crime.”

Martinez did not immediately appoint an acting Cabinet secretary to replace Marcantel, whose last day of work will be Oct. 31.