N.M. prison officials seek funding for hundreds of vacant guard positions

House panel OKs budget for 309 unfilled guard jobs; Corrections Department secretary anticipates more prosecutions and more prisoners

By: - February 2, 2023 4:30 am
Detail of the New Mexico Corrections Department logo painted on a wall inside the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility.

Prison populations in New Mexico dropped nearly every month for more than three years, but that decrease has been slowing. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

A panel of House lawmakers on Tuesday honored a request by the head of the state prison system and the governor to keep paying for hundreds of guard positions that have sat empty for years, against the recommendation of their own analysts.

In its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislative Finance Committee  recommended cutting 309 empty jobs from the New Mexico Corrections Department’s budget.

“The recommendation recognizes chronically vacant correctional officer positions are not necessary in light of substantial reductions in inmate population,” analysts wrote. Reducing the number of CO jobs that are authorized for state prisons could redistribute that $23 million elsewhere in the budget, they said.

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Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and other high-ranking officials in the department met with the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Tuesday to discuss the state prison system’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July.

The department employs about 2,300 people, Tafoya Lucero said. About 28% of the agency’s total guard positions were empty over the course of fiscal year 2022, according to the LFC, with an even higher vacancy rate among private prison guards at 32%.

The LFC’s proposed cut would still leave in place about 100 vacant guard jobs, which would average out to between 10 and 12 per prison, Executive Budget Analyst Diego Jimenez said.

However, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration recommended keeping the empty spots funded, and Tafoya Lucero said she needs those positions for what she anticipates will be an increase in criminal prosecutions in the coming years.

Secretary Tafoya Lucero asked the committee to adopt the executive branch’s recommendations and not the LFC’s.

“The executive recommendation is in alignment with our agency priorities,” she said.

She said she is “terribly concerned” about what the loss of those 309 vacant guard jobs would mean for the department. “We would essentially stop progressing at this point forward, right?”

For example, Tafoya Lucero said the Corrections Department has 41 cadets in its latest class of prison guards, bigger than previous years, which saw 15 or 20 graduates.

“The executive believes that would pose a number of issues — administratively and otherwise — for the department, if that reduction in FTE was adopted,” Jimenez said.

Tafoya Lucero acknowledged the department is using the money set aside for those empty positions to raise salaries for the guards they do have.

Minority Whip Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) suggested Tafoya Lucero meet with LFC Director David Abbey about the issue of shifting money that was destined for positions the department couldn’t fill to pay for raises “offline,” or without a public process.

“This budget is really not a good budget, because we are using the extra FTE positions to cover our pay increases, and I’m just not comfortable with that,” Montoya said.

Nobody else, no other business in the state, runs a business that way.

– Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington)

The LFC recommended $2.9 million to provide raises to guards, and recommended providing the department with$3.1 million more overall than the executive’s budget proposal. The funding is meant to provide the department “more flexibility to address compensation and recruitment, and retaining of correctional officers as they see fit,” Jimenez said.

Pay boosts for guards, Tafoya Lucero said, is about offering competitive, fair and equitable pay.

Ultimately, Committee Vice Chair Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) moved to adopt the executive branch’s budget recommendation. Montoya was the only opposing vote on the committee.

Aging, poorly maintained prisons

New Mexico operates eight state-owned prisons, and three prisons owned by other governments or private corporations, with a total capacity of 5,745 beds.

The state government also contracts with private prison operators to run two facilities with a capacity of 1,900 beds, analysts found in March 2022.

They’re about 70% occupied, according to a rough estimate from Corrections Department officials.

The state-owned prisons are, on average, 40 years old, with a lot of maintenance being deferred, according to the LFC. The prison buildings require $250,000,000 in repairs the analysts estimated.

Prison officials have moved incarcerated people between prisons in Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, Clayton, Springer and Los Lunas, and have closed certain parts of some prisons for repairs, Tafoya Lucero said.

If the Legislature takes away the 309 empty positions now, Tafoya Lucero said, “essentially we would have to leave all of those areas closed, and we would not be able to accommodate the — what we anticipate seeing is an increase in prosecutions.”

Fewer people incarcerated

As of Tuesday, there were about 5,300 people held in state prisons in New Mexico, Tafoya Lucero said.

Prisons saw 2% more admissions so far in fiscal year 2022, following years of prison populations steadily shrinking in the state.

Prison populations in New Mexico dropped nearly every month for more than three years, legislative researchers found, but that decrease has been slowing. Despite an uptick in new admissions, population numbers are still down.

Tafoya Lucero said much of the decline has been “driven by some of the larger judicial districts and the prosecution rates” within the state’s court system. She pointed to the largest one, the Second Judicial District in Albuquerque, which “primarily feeds our institutions and creates the number of intakes coming in.”

There are also as many as 15,000 people outside the walls who are on state probation or parole, analysts found in March 2022.

The LFC also recommended increasing the department’s budget by 1.5% overall, including $1 million to start using evidence-based recidivism programs, though the Corrections Department did not ask for additional money for recidivism reduction programming, analysts noted. 

The Legislative Finance committee also sought $500,000 for rental assistance for people being released from prison who are unhoused, money for digitizing incarcerated people’s official prison records, and more money for private prison companies that work in the state so payment is in line with the Consumer Price Index.

Tafoya Lucero said we can’t predict the future size of the state prison population, but she’s expecting more prisoners.

“I would anticipate that we will see a continued increase in the number of people that are entering into the prison system,” Tafoya Lucero said, “And I want to make sure that we’re able to accommodate that by having enough staff in place at all of our institutions so that if we need to reopen all of those wings, that we are able to do that.”


This story was updated on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, at 9:30 a.m. to correctly reflect the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation to give more money to the Corrections Department to pay for raises for prison guards, and which legislative analyst commented on the department’s budget request.

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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.