Jail guard union president warns of heightened chances for a riot at MDC

National Guard has been called on to help with some tasks, but a big staffing shortage and poor planning mean that might not be enough, he says  

By: - January 28, 2022 6:10 am

The Metropolitan Detention Center in a Bernalillo County recruitment video from January 2020. (Photo courtesy of Bernalillo County)

The head of the union representing guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center is skeptical that calling in the New Mexico National Guard will solve the problems there.

Joseph Trujeque is the president of AFSCME Council 18 Local 2499, the union representing guards at MDC. He works there, too, and has for around 20 years. 

A big staffing shortage and a cyberattack has left inmates locked in their cells. The low morale and harsh conditions raise his concerns about the place erupting in violence.

He said he is always worried about a jail riot, no matter the circumstances, but there is a heightened threat of a riot right now. On lockdown, inmates cannot take showers, contact their loved ones or have visitors. And after the ransomware attack, they couldn’t access their commissary, Trujeque said, which is one of the only sources of relief for them.

There are between 1,150 and 1,300 inmates inside the jail, MDC Chief Greg Richardson told state lawmakers on Wednesday night.

According to Trujeque, a big portion of the inmates are in jail awaiting trial and have not been convicted. They are struggling through poor medical and psychiatric care, constitutional violations, lockdowns, and inhumane conditions, according to a review by Source New Mexico.

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Staff members at the jail have been leaving because they are overworked, underpaid — and, he specifies, lacking support from Bernalillo County officials.

“You would think that the third-largest public entity in the state would have some kind of defense or some kind of plan if something like that were to happen,” he said in an interview with Source NM. “I’m pretty saddened that the county had no plan, nothing in place. That shows how much the county cares about their employees.”

COVID deaths inside

Three guards and one inmate at MDC have died from COVID-19, Trujeque said.

Asked about these deaths, county spokesperson Tia Bland did not deny them but wrote that the county will not release any information protected by federal health privacy law.

“We will not release the names of the staff out of respect for their families,” Bland wrote.

The jail is still at the same place it was when the pandemic first began in terms of measures taken to slow the spread of COVID, Trujeque said. Richardson told lawmakers the same thing.

That includes social distancing, N-95 masks required for inmates and staff at all times, no physically transporting inmates to court, and 15-day quarantines for all inmates upon arrival and any inmate who tests positive.

When an inmate tests positive for COVID-19, their entire unit is locked down, Trujeque said, so each inmate is locked alone in their cell. They are only let out for 30 minutes at a time to allow for testing, he said, and guards remove inmates who test negative from that unit.

There is no mandate for staff to be vaccinated, he said, and many staff members aren’t. The jail’s policy around unpaid quarantine leave could be contributing to spread at MDC.

Any guard who tests positive stays at home for 15 days and must return to work, he said, even if they’re not completely healthy yet.

The union and the county agreed on Jan. 21 to provide paid leave for quarantine, but it is only for five days. “The only option is, you come back to work, or you use your own leave, if you have it,” he said. 

County calls on the military for help

The Bernalillo County Commission on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution asking for help from the New Mexico National Guard, including 13 jail guards who have been on leave while on deployment with the National Guard.

Trujeque said he does not know if 13 people will make a significant difference.

Even if 100 troops showed up immediately, they still could not step foot in the jail, he said, until they get 10 weeks of training required by McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, the decades-old lawsuit over conditions and overcrowding at the jail.

The troops cannot perform guard duties, Bland wrote in an email Thursday. The county has asked for their help to do administrative duties, she wrote.

The resolution also requires other counties holding inmates at MDC to collect them. There are probably between 50 and 100 inmates who fit that description, Trujeque said.

National Guard troops — along with county behavioral health workers already filling in at the jail — are not allowed to have any contact with inmates nor can they take on any duties reserved for guards, according to a list of responsibilities obtained by Source New Mexico through a public records request.

Some duties non-guards can perform

  • Answering inmates’ call buttons
  • Monitoring security cameras: watching inmate behavior and actions, tracking movements of guards assigned to more than one pod, watching for verbal confrontations between guards and inmates, use-of-force incidents, and assault and battery on guards
  • Documenting incidents

Instead, they are responsible for answering inmate call buttons, monitoring the jail’s security cameras and documenting incidents like use of force, fighting and rape. They’ll have to do it on paper forms, because the jail’s incident tracking system is still inaccessible — at least to the guards — after the cyberattack, Trujeque said Wednesday.

Are the cameras up?

As of Wednesday, guards had access to only 40 of the approximately 200 cameras at the jail, he said. This conflicts with what Roseanne Otero Gonzales, MDC’s director of administrative services, told the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council a week before.

Otero Gonzales said, “now we have full (camera) coverage over this facility.”

That may be true, but according to Trujeque, the problem is not whether the cameras are operational, but rather whether guards are able to access them.

The county denies this.

“All cameras are currently operational and accessible,” Bland wrote Thursday.

‘Dangerous work environment’

Trujeque has worked at the jail since 1999. He left for a couple of years but returned in 2005.

“I’ve never seen, felt or heard of the morale being like this,” he said. “People do not want to walk into that place right now.”

The lockdown is, in part, caused by the lack of guards’ ability to supervise all of the inmates.

The majority of the staff is working three, 16-hour shifts per week, usually three days in a row, Trujeque said.

“It’s creating a dangerous work environment for not only the civilian staff but for the inmates as well,” he said.

Each pod at MDC contains numerous inmates. The list of responsibilities for non-guards expects them to “focus on pods where one officer is assigned to more than one pod.” That guidance might seem a little out of touch, because on really bad days, a single guard is expected to supervise an entire unit, Trujeque said. 

That’s eight pods. 

The jail is missing scores of guards, and pay might be part of the problem. Starting pay for guards at MDC is around $18.50 per hour. The county government needs to step up, he said, and bump everyone’s pay by $3 to $5 per hour. Bland wrote in an email Thursday that the current MDC vacancy rate is 39%, including guards, sergeants and lieutenants. She refused to provide specific numbers, she said, for security reasons..

Guards are suffering from the psychological effects of witnessing people incarcerated there committing suicide, fighting or attacking guard, Trujeque said.

“You can imagine the stress level of having to make sure that every single inmate is OK, do your checks on time, and not get in trouble at work,” he added.

The bottom line is, MDC needs to get staff in the door. “Everybody’s working all this overtime, and it seems like the county’s only answer is to make the overworked and frustrated people do more,” he said. “And that’s not the answer.”

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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.