To deal with the emergency at Bernalillo County jail, is releasing people on the table?

Public discussion around the MDC crisis is so far focused on bringing in more guards

By: - June 17, 2022 6:15 am

The front entrance of the Metropolitan Detention Center is shown in a screenshot from a promotional video published in January 2020. (Courtesy of Bernalillo County)

Bernalillo County has tried many different ways to solve the problem of not enough guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Officials have tried putting inmates on lockdown for days at a time so they are easier to watch, paying guards extra to work overtime and paying guards double on some shifts. They’ve tried hiring bonuses, longevity packages, and bringing in the National Guard and county employees to handle administrative tasks to free up guards.

Most recently, they have twice declared a state of emergency at the jail, requiring guards to come into work and getting rid of limits on how much overtime they can work. The guards’ union president told the Albuquerque Journal he makes more than $100,000 per year when he accounts for overtime.

But each of those steps only deal with one side of the equation of incarceration: finding the resources needed to hold about 1,300 people inside the walls.

None of them address the other side of the equation: releasing incarcerated people from the jail or not detaining as many people in the first place.

It’s been done before. There is a decades-long class action lawsuit meant to address overcrowding at the jail, although it was originally about the way the jail was built and how many beds it has rather than severe staff shortages. Two of the attorneys handling that lawsuit were not available for comment this week.

And in other contexts, people have been released from state prisons in the interest of keeping them safe.

When the deadly infectious disease COVID first came to New Mexico, the state’s public defenders and civil rights organizations tried to convince the courts to release some people so that they would not get infected. The state Supreme Court struck that down.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order allowing some people who were set to be released within a month to get out early to stay safe from the virus. But the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said her order’s impact on the prison population in the state was “negligible.”

Criminal defense lawyers and ACLU-NM tried to convince the courts to release people again later in 2020. That case is still pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Now the state’s chief public defender, Bennet Baur, says we should revisit the idea, given the emergency at MDC. He is not allowing his employees to venture inside to see their clients, saying it is too dangerous.

In an interview on Monday, Baur said it is pretty clear that the staffing problem at MDC is not going to get fixed any time soon.

“I don’t blame the people that are running the jail right now,” Baur said. “This is a systemic problem. And I think they’re doing the best they can, but we are not doing them any favors, or ourselves as a community, by minimizing this problem. This is a systemic problem that’s pretty clear. It’s not going to fix itself.”

Bernalillo County employees filling in for jail workers during staffing crisis

The Law Offices of the Public Defender has over the past several months made requests to have people released from jail in individual cases, Baur said.

“I think now that the jail’s made it pretty clear through this state of emergency, we’re going to be looking more closely at a systemic approach,” Baur said.

As of Monday, Baur was not sure what that would look like. It could be similar to LOPD’s first attempt to get people out because of the pandemic, Baur said, which involved getting lists of people who were in custody and allowing communication between prosecutors, defense attorneys and courts to comb through those lists and try to see who could be released based on a certain set of criteria, including that they’d been charged with nonviolent offenses.

“Across the country, early in COVID, courts and justice systems were doing that, and we did it in different parts of New Mexico,” Baur said. “I think we’re going to need to revisit that. We know that, at varying levels, this is a problem all over the state.”

As of Tuesday, there have been no filings in the New Mexico Supreme Court seeking inmate releases from MDC, said Barry Massey, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, said the same thing on Tuesday — that she is not aware of any legal attempts to get some people out of MDC in order to keep them safe.

Then on Thursday, ACLU-NM published a tweet about the emergency at MDC and a link to Source New Mexico’s story about it.

“No one should be forced to live in inhumane conditions,” ACLU-NM wrote. “We know how to solve this crisis: reduce the population inside MDC through releases and a halt to additional unnecessary detentions.”

Jenn Burrill, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, also said that there must be some kind of legal argument to be made about the rights of people held at MDC “when the county can’t provide safe conditions for attorneys to meet with their clients.”

She suggested that those defendants may not be receiving their rights under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees criminal defendants access to an attorney.

MDC Chief Greg Richardson said on Thursday afternoon he could not answer whether anyone is considering asking the courts to release some people to alleviate the staffing problem.

A spokesperson for the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment sent via email and phone calls this week about whether they have considered releasing people to address the crisis.

Appropriate staffing in jails is important to protect the physical safety of incarcerated people and guards, Baur said, but also their mental health.

“If people are being locked down for days and days at a time, without access to showers, they are not in good shape when they’re released,” Baur said. “What are we doing to our community?”

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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.