Governor: N.M. prison medical care contracts leave ‘a lot to be desired’

Conditions in prisons and jails ‘not part of the core’ legislative public safety priorities in 2023, Lujan Grisham says

By: - January 26, 2023 4:30 am
Two people sit in formal attire, the seal and flag of the State of New Mexico behind them. On the large round table in front of them, a number of press microphones listen in.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lays out her public safety legislative priorities for the 2023 legislative session on Wednesday afternoon on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse. To her left sits House Speaker Javier Martínez. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

New Mexico’s governor and lawmakers from both parties are again pushing legislation that would require people accused of a crime to prove that they are not too dangerous to release before a trial.

They are also trying to get 1,000 more police officers hired and working around the state.

Those two initiatives, if successful, would necessarily increase the number of people being arrested, held in jail, and eventually convicted and put in prison.

They are two of seven significant efforts discussed at a news conference on Wednesday where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders outlined their priorities for bills related to public safety.

The state’s understaffed and opaque prison system faces accusations of human rights violations and widespread neglect of incarcerated people who need medical care.

The same problems can be found in local jails in New Mexico, too. Spread of COVID and longstanding allegations of abuse and medical neglect behind the walls remain unaddressed by the state’s courts.

“I’m taking a close, hard look at any number of our medical care contracts that I think have a lot to be desired,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said when asked if her plans have considered the conditions inside the state’s prisons and jails.

Medical care in New Mexico prisons is provided through a contract between the state Corrections Department and Wexford Health Services, Inc. That contract, signed in October 2019, paid Wexford a minimum of $58 million in the first year, $60 million in the second year, and $62 million in the third year.

The previous contractor, Centurion Health made $41 million per year.

And the contractor before that, Corizon Health, made $37.5 million per year to provide medical care, until state officials kicked them out in 2016.

Parrish Collins is a civil rights attorney who has sued the state Corrections Department and their medical contractors more than 50 times.

“It’s just a revolving door,” Collins said in an interview last month. “And each time the contracts get larger and the medical care gets worse. So they are clearly not incentivized to improve the medical care in the prisons and jails.”

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Collins is trying to convince lawmakers to pass a bill to take away the contractors’ shield from legal liability under the state Tort Claims Act in medical neglect and wrongful death cases.

“This is a pittance for them,” Collins said, because the way the Tort Claims Act is operating now, the caps are $750,000 maximum for a medical neglect claim, or $400,000 for a death. Those costs are split between the state Corrections Department and the medical contractor, he said.

“When you’re talking about these huge companies, the cost-benefit analysis is pretty simple,” Collins said. He said $750,000 is “what some might refer to as chump change.”

“They are not motivated to correct the medical care as the law is currently interpreted and with the provision of Tort Claims Act protection to them,” Collins said.

Lujan Grisham also said county and city governments are coming to her office with concerns about antiquated jails and staffing issues, and “we’ve looked at increasing salaries for correction officers.”

“We need to do more,” Lujan Grisham said. “So yes, that’s part of the equation, but not part of the core public safety bills that we talked about today.”

Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s news conference was about finding bipartisan solutions to crime.

Three people in formal attire sit at a round table. A man on the left holds up a stack of papers and speaks, while the woman in the middle and another man on the right watch him speak.
Sen. Linda Lopez (center) watches Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman (left) advocate for her bill that would establish rebuttable presumptions in pretrial detention hearings on Wednesday afternoon. To her left is Sen. Joseph Cervantes. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane (R-Aztec) said “career criminals” should not be prematurely released from jail.

“We don’t want folks that are gonna go out and recommit, and recommit, cycling through the system prior to trial,” he said. “We need to tackle that together.”

Sen. Linda Lopez said she and Rep. Meredith Dixon will again sponsor the rebuttable presumption proposal, which puts the burden on defendants to prove they are not dangerous and should be released before a trial instead of requiring the state to prove they are a threat and should be incarcerated. New Mexico’s Chief Justice Shannon Bacon on Tuesday reminded lawmakers that people are innocent until proven guilty.

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Also sitting at the table on the fourth floor on Wednesday was former Bernalillo County Sheriff’s captain Bill Rehm, a Republican representative from Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Reeb, former Ninth Judicial district attorney.

Rehm has sponsored similar attacks on bail reform since voters approved a constitutional amendment that abolished cash bail in 2016. Neither of them spoke during the news conference. 

“Too many dangerous criminals are being released onto the streets,” Lopez said. “The tools and procedures being used to determine who should or should not be deemed a danger are inaccurate, and at best, are causing unnecessary harm and tragedy to too many individuals and families in our communities.”

Lopez said the bill will apply a better filter for how courts measure the potential threat a person poses, and keep in jail those accused of “the most heinous felonies” like first-degree murder, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, brandishment or discharge of a firearm in a crime, or committing a crime while on parole.

“The people committing these acts while awaiting trial cannot be turned back out into our communities and allowed to inflict more needless pain and suffering,” Lopez said.

The last time the legislators tried to make this change, their own analysts warned them the bill “may lead to prolonged detention of defendants who are never convicted of the crimes they are accused of,” and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico promised to challenge its constitutionality in court.

The governor’s public safety legislative priorities in 2023:

  1. Creating a law against organized retail crime, redefining robbery and shoplifting to encompass crimes of theft that occur at multiple places over a period of a year (Legislation to be sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews)
  2. Creating a “rebuttable presumption” to shift the burden of proof onto the defendant for pre-trial detention (Senate Bill 123 sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez and Rep. Meredith Dixon)
  3. Outlawing the purchase, import, delivery and manufacture of assault-style firearms and .50-caliber weapons (Legislation to be sponsored by Rep. Andrea Romero and Rep. Linda Serrato)
  4. Allowing for the prosecution of anyone who buys a firearm on behalf of someone who is not legally able to purchase one (Legislation to be sponsored by Rep. Ryan Lane)
  5. Creating criminal penalties for adults who fail to keep firearms away from minors (House Bill 9 sponsored by Rep. Pamelya Herndon)
  6. Allowing survivors of gun violence to bring civil lawsuits against firearm manufacturers (Legislation to be sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes)
  7. Allocating $100 million from the state budget to the Law Enforcement Recruitment Fund to hire more police officers in N.M. (Legislation to be sponsored by Sen. Leo Jaramillo)

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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.