New Mexico prison admissions increase after seven-year decline 

Staffing shortages and health risks affect state’s inmates

By: - August 25, 2022 4:30 am

New Mexico has higher incarceration rates than most other states in the country and the U.S. as a whole, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. (Stock photo from Getty Images)

Amid a guard staffing shortage, prison admissions increased in New Mexico for the first time in seven years.

Prisons saw 2% more admissions so far in fiscal year 2022 compared with last year, the Legislative Finance Committee reported. Of the 2,409 people who went to prison in recent months, 60% were incarcerated because of new convictions, according to an August LFC newsletter.

And though prison populations in the state shrank steadily for years, that trend may be shifting. Inmate populations in New Mexico dropped nearly every month for more than three years, the LFC found, but that decrease has been tapering off.

Overall, population numbers are still down despite the uptick in new admissions. There were 225 fewer prison inmates reported in April 2022 compared with April 2021. 

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission predicted that there would be an uptick in prison populations after courts recovered from being forced to slow down sentencing during the height of the pandemic.

New Mexico has higher incarceration rates than most other states in the county and the U.S. as a whole, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group focused on criminal justice reform.

Understaffed prisons

About 100 guard positions remained unfilled in recent months, according to the legislative report, with employment gaps at 28% in state-run prisons and 27% in prisons operated by private corporations.

Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said this isn’t necessarily an issue. “Although we may be seeing some vacancies, we’re also seeing a lower population as well,” she said.

But reports have connected violence, medical and mental health negligence, and other unsafe conditions with the lack of workers to oversee the prisons. And over at the state’s largest jail, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, trash piled up in the halls while inmates sat confined for days in cells without being allowed to go outside or make phone calls, according to Searchlight New Mexico.

Wanda Bertram with Prison Policy Initiative said states have lower incarceration rates when they invest in housing and health care for people with mental illnesses or substance use disorders.

The lack of NM prison staff is a cause of concern for Barron Jones, senior policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. He said understaffing in prisons can also lead to worse treatment of inmates, limited access to social activities or being locked up in cells for longer periods of time. The problem, he said, exemplifies the need to provide treatment to people rather than locking them up.

“The system-wide staffing crisis, it runs the risk of placing people in dangerous situations,” Jones said.

Locked up amid health crises

Over 4,000 COVID cases and 29 deaths were reported in NM prisons between the pandemic’s start and May 2022. The growing admission rate comes amid both the ongoing pandemic and a national monkeypox crisis. Hart said she’s not aware of any monkeypox cases in the prisons and that the department is following all executive orders the governor sets.

“Our role in public safety is to provide the appropriate care for the individuals, the convicted individuals, that are at our facilities,” Hart said. 

New Mexico prisons had much higher rates of COVID than other states, according to the LFC. “Covid-19 has ravaged New Mexico’s prison population,” committee analysts wrote in a 2021 Corrections Department report card. Jones said this speaks to the department’s inadequate response. Imprisoning people right now puts them at risk for catching these viruses and endangers them, Jones said.

“Packing people in our prisons and jails when we’re still experiencing several federal public health crises is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

N.M. prisons still don’t allow in-person visitation. That’s a COVID safety measure, Hart said.

“It’s a nightmare to be incarcerated right now,” Bertram said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.