A bill to be proposed in the 2023 Legislature would set up a New Mexico Corrections Oversight Commission to better address issues with the state’s Corrections Department. (Getty Images)
Hoping to boost transparency in state prisons, a state lawmaker and ACLU strategist want legislators to approve a bill early next year that would let people who have actually been incarcerated act as watchdogs to the New Mexico Corrections Department.
“At best, our prison systems are opaque. And at worst, they’re secretive,” said Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
He and Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D-Mesilla) talked with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 7 about the need for more diligent oversight of the department managing the state’s prison systems.
Cadena and Jones’ proposed legislation for the 2023 Legislature has a goal to bring greater public accountability and transparency to an understaffed prison system, which faces accusations of corruption and human rights violations. They want support to set up a New Mexico Corrections Oversight Commission to better address issues with the state’s Corrections Department.
Getting public rulemaking
The legislation would also require that a public rulemaking process be established for the New Mexico Corrections Department, though Cadena said who will be in charge of that is still being flushed out.
“We are still exploring how to actually make that piece become real,” she said.
They want this body, which would include members formerly incarcerated by the state, to begin meeting within three years and start investigating issues in New Mexico prisons.
“As a state, as a government, we have the authority to incarcerate people,” Cadena said, “and in turn, we believe that comes with an incredible responsibility to be accountable to that authority.”
The proposed N.M. Corrections Oversight Commission would be partly made up of people who have been incarcerated and their families. Cadena added that legislation would also be sure to give space on the commission for correctional administration representatives, civil rights advocates and behavioral health experts.
The commission would also require a person with expertise — called an “ombudsperson” — to investigate problems in the state’s prisons for both incarcerated people and correctional officers. They would make recommendations back to the committee, though they wouldn’t have much enforcement power.
“Transparency is an incredibly powerful tool,” Cadena said.
Lawmakers wanted more information on who exactly would be enforcing recommended actions from the new oversight committee. Cadena said it would be mostly up to the state government. She did say giving the commission powers to enforce its decisions could be a factor looked at down the road.
“For now, to have a public rulemaking process and then the capacity to have eyes on the system from the inside feels already like that would be a leap ahead,” she said.
Jones said this kind of legislation would serve not only those in the system but also the general public, to make sure that incarcerated people are “coming home better than when they went in. And without effective oversight and transparency, there’s no way to do that.”
Specifics still being worked out
This is similar to legislation that Cadena sponsored in 2021 that failed in the legislative process. That proposal wanted to create an Office of the Ombudsman within the Legislative Finance Committee to independently look into issues with the N.M. Corrections Department.
Cadena is using the old proposal as a framework to help hammer out the details on this latest bill. She said she wants this to be something that can be workshopped collaboratively. “We don’t have all the answers filled in,” she said.
Though Cadena didn’t get into all the financial aspects on Wednesday, she said the independent commission would require significant funding, likely enough for four full-time commission employees. But in 2021, the only revision to the bill was slashing the $250,000 appropriation request to fund the ombudsman office.
Jones said the money the state normally pays for litigation on cases involving Corrections — which he said was around $10 million in the last four years — would pay for the bill in itself.
While this bill won’t solve everything, Cadena said, it’s progress.
“It’s not everything that gives us a magic wand to change what happens within our correctional system as a state in New Mexico,” she said. “But it does take us a giant leap forward to actually bring transparency into this process.”
Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), another sponsor on the 2021 bill, said she’s fully committed to this concept of oversight. She said this is a chance to re-envision the system “so that we actually have something that is more functional.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) echoed that sentiment.
“There’s a culture in the prisons that isn’t going to change overnight, but this is definitely a step in that direction,” Sedillo Lopez said.
Pushback on the details
A few lawmakers questioned why the committee wouldn’t just be part of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission or another state agency. Cadena said it’s because this party would be fully independent, non-political and focused solely on the problems going on in the state’s prisons.
Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) suggested the commission could be part of a larger state agency that deals only with ombudspeople. Cadena agreed that would be helpful for a bunch of departments that need oversight. But since that doesn’t exist yet, she said, this initiative is necessary now.
“Until some body exists to hold these potentially different inspector generals or ombudspeople,” she said, “it felt important for us to make this stand alone.”
Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon (D-Milan) said he doesn’t see how the investigator would help the Legislature. It would just be further supervision of the Corrections Department, he said.
“There’s nothing we as the Legislature can do to change what’s happening over there in Corrections because they run their programs,” he said. “They run everything over there.”
And, even if the work did happen to create the position, he said there would need to be at least 20 ombudspeople because of how large the Corrections Department is.
“I just don’t know where we’re going here,” he said. “I’m not against the idea, but I just don’t see it being a solution right now.”
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