Bernalillo County employees filling in for jail workers during staffing crisis

Oversight panel fails to ask any questions about ‘life-threatening’ lapses in medical and psychiatric care there 

By: - January 21, 2022 6:00 am

A screenshot from a February 2019 Bernalillo County recruitment advertisement.

County workers are stepping in at the state’s largest jail, which has an ongoing staffing shortage and is still dealing with fallout from a cyberattack on the local government.

Soon, state employees may join them.

The Metropolitan Detention Center holds about 1,200 people. Assistant County Attorney Daniel Roberson said the staff shortage has been at a critical level for a few months. MDC’s lost an unprecedented number of guards for various reasons, Roberson said, including “COVID issues.”

Employees from the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services have been moved over to the jail to do “non-correctional officer work,” he said, freeing up the limited guards. “We’re trying to make COs do CO work and have other people relieve that load, either by using the cameras a lot more frequently, to help relieve that burden,” Roberson told the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Thursday afternoon.

It was the first time the Council had met since officials announced the cyberattack that caused the jail to stop all visitation and put the people inside on lockdown in cells.

The council is an 11-member group of the highest-ranking judicial and police officials in the county. Each county in New Mexico has such an entity; they were created by the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2016.

Roberson said county officials have reached out to state agencies for more help, but he did not specify which ones.

He said Chief Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Campos on Wednesday created a detailed plan of what those state workers could do once they start coming into MDC.

Roberson said the union representing workers at the jail struck an agreement with management to get longevity pay, which helped retain some workers and also applies to new hires.

That has not stopped the exodus of staff from the jail, according to Source New Mexico’s review of court records and interviews with former employees. That research indicates the jail is hemorrhaging medical staff, doesn’t have a doctor, and “life-threatening” health care lapses documented last fall have continued under a new private contractor, Corizon Health. One psychiatric nurse, in her resignation letter, called the worsening situation a “recipe for disaster.”

TURMOIL AT THE STATE’S BIGGEST JAIL: Staff members flee as crises unfold

Recovery from the cyberattack

Roseanne Otero Gonzales, MDC’s director of administrative services, gave contradictory information about how the cyberattack has impacted the jail’s security cameras. “All our cameras are operational, and I know there were some reports that our cameras were all down, and that was not true. We did have cameras that were operational,” she said, despite what the county’s lawyers told the courts in an emergency notice after the systems were hacked on Jan. 5.

IT was able to restore the cameras over the weekend, Otero Gonzales said, “so now we have full coverage over this facility.”

Attorneys representing people locked inside MDC are again allowed to visit them as of Thursday, she said. That means there were no visits with lawyers for two weeks.

Professional visitors will be allowed back into the jail next week, Otero Gonzales said.

“We ensured that if there were any type of attorney visits, we came up with a paper process to where we had an individual on our staff who went out to every single unit and hand-delivered those to the inmates and to the supervisors, to ensure that those would happen,” she said.

The jail’s Offender Management System is back online, Otero Gonzales said. That is the system jail officials use to store inmates’ commissary account data.

It is not clear if the county has fixed the system jail officials use to write and store reports on incidents like fights, use of force and rape.

The problem right now, Otero Gonzales said, is that IT has to install more software on computers and laptops at the jail. Thirty computers that were infected by the cyberattack had to be rebuilt, she said.

Jail’s inability to deal with cyberattack could violate the constitutional rights of inmates

Some MDC inmates on Jan. 7 had to call into their arraignment hearing by dialing out on the payphone, and they did not have a chance to speak to their attorneys before the hearing, so they had not been advised about the charges against them, legal penalties or their constitutional rights, according to a public defender representing two of them.

Later that day, the Second Judicial District Court made space available at its Children’s Court location in Albuquerque, where defendants are being transported from MDC, and have been able to communicate privately with their attorneys and appear at hearings using laptop stations in a courtroom.

Otero Gonzales said the regular docket would resume at MDC “maybe by next week.”

Police who transport defendants to and from court have new software on the computers they use, but those are still experiencing “glitches,” she said.

No comment still

None of the Council members asked for more detail during the presentation about the medical, psychiatric, correctional or administrative staffing shortages.

During public comment, Source New Mexico asked if anyone on the council knows how many vacancies there are among guards and medical employees.

Coordinating Council Chair Pat Davis said back-and-forth is not allowed during public comment unless questions are submitted in writing ahead of time. 

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca, whose official bio describes her as having a “transparent” leadership style, referred all questions to county spokesperson Tia Bland.

“Please do reach out to us,” she told Source New Mexico. “I know we’ve talked before. We’re happy to give you any information that you need, but there’s a process.”

Source NM submitted a list of questions about staffing and medical care to Bland on Jan. 5. They still had not been answered as of press time 15 days later.

When asked again after yesterday’s meeting, Bland wrote in an email that a corporation based in Tennessee contracted to provide health care at the jail here would reply in the future. “Corizon is working on the responses, and someone from the company will get in touch with you.”

Source NM will update these stories if we hear back.

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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.