COVID still spreading in NM prisons despite nearly everyone getting the jab

Clayton prison is a hotspot even though 95% of prisoners are vaccinated

By: - November 23, 2021 5:55 am

A state prison unit manager opens a gate at the women’s prison in Grants. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Almost all state prisoners in New Mexico have been fully vaccinated, though the latest data show one state prison here has one of the highest rates of infection of any jail or prison in the United States.

As of Monday, there were 5,282 prisoners who had received both doses —  about 95% — state Corrections Department spokesperson Eric Harrison said Monday. Eleven other prisoners were still waiting on their second dose, he said.

The total prison population fluctuates daily but on Monday stood at 5,567, which means 95% of state prisoners were vaccinated. That is much higher than the overall vaccination rate among New Mexicans outside prison walls, which was just over 63%.

In total, 28 state prisoners have died of COVID, Harrison said, and the availability of vaccines has played an enormous role in preventing any deaths since January or February.

Despite vaccines being widely available to state prisoners, that has not stopped the virus from spreading within the walls.

The prison in Clayton, N.M., had 38 active cases — one of the highest infection rates nationwide, according to the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project.

The Clayton prison had the 17th highest rate of COVID infections among all 1,737 U.S. lockups in the database, including: state adult prisons, federal prisons, county jails, ICE detention centers and youth detention centers.

Vaccines for corrections staff and prisoners

New Mexico’s prison workers are also getting vaccinated more than workers elsewhere. Out of 2,388 Corrections Department staff in the state, 2,237 were vaccinated, or 93%, Harrison said. That number only includes private and public state prisons, not federal facilities or county jails.

He added that 140 prison staff have received exemptions from vaccination, while another 11 are on extended leave and have not yet addressed their vaccination status with the Department.

The Department will follow the recently released state guidelines on booster shots, Harrison said, so if anyone is six months out from their initial vaccination, they will “start moving forward” on getting folks a third shot.

Anytime a person enters a state prison, Harrison said, “if they’re not vaccinated, we’re going to educate them, and we’re going to encourage it,” after the prisoner is quarantined.

The Corrections Department worked with state health officials to obtain all the doses they needed and began putting them in prisoners’ arms during the state’s first phase in the beginning of 2021, 1A, when hospital and other health care workers, medical first responders and residents of long-term care facilities got their first jabs. That’s according to Corrections Department Health Services Administrator Wenceslaus Asonganyi, who was speaking in August to the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

He described the process, where anyone coming through the prison system’s intake hub would be offered vaccines.

“During routine clinics, we continue to educate and offer inmates an opportunity to be vaccinated, even if they had refused in the past,” Asonganyi said. “Every opportunity that they encounter, a provider will use that as an opportunity to also offer them and educate them and answer any questions that they might have.”

Funding for medical care behind the walls

About 15% of the Corrections Department’s budget goes directly toward medical care for inmates, according to an audit of the agency’s finances from 2019, the latest one publicly available.

The audit found that the largest part of the department’s budget covers employees’ salaries and benefits. That totals $145.2 million or 43% of the entire budget, with over half of that amount paying prison guards.

Last year, the department spent about $67 million on its medical contract with a company called Wexford Health Services, Harrison said.

On Nov. 17, the Corrections Department asked the Legislative Finance Committee to increase its budget from $329.3 million to $338.8 million. The department is not asking for an increase to its spending on medical services.

Its request to the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal year includes a $1.3 million increase to help pay for behavioral health services. Corrections is trying to hire more behavioral health contractors, Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said on Nov. 17 before the LFC. 

“We’re finding that it’s difficult to bring people on board in state positions to work in behavioral health services,” Tafoya Lucero said. Those providers often have other jobs and can only work part-time in the prisons, she said.

The Corrections Department had a goal of reducing its prison population to 75%, Tafoya Lucero said. That was in response to an executive order by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April 2020 ordering the release of nonviolent offenders who met certain criteria in the hopes of slowing the spread of the virus.

“That really had a lot to do with what we were seeing with the virus,” Tafoya Lucero  said. “We were, at the time, looking to be able to increase our ability to do social distancing strategies in institutions.”

New Mexico reduced its prison population from 6,573 in March 2020 to 5,708 in May 2021, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Monday’s official count of 5,567 suggests that the prison population has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The Initiative also found that New Mexico has continued to imprison people for technical violations of probation and parole, which are not crimes, which is one of the easiest ways to keep prison populations low. The researchers also found that New Mexico is one of 15 prison systems that do not make hand sanitizer or free hygiene products widely available to inmates.

Staff shortages and quarantine issues added stress to prison staff, she said. But morale may be rebounding. It’s “creeping up — I’m not going to say that it’s up there, because COVID has been a difficult time for people.” The Legislature will determine the budget for the Corrections Department during the upcoming 2022 session, which starts in January.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.