Otero County agrees to pay more for incarcerating people in Texas

The county’s vacancy rate for detention center employees is just above 32%

By: - October 25, 2023 4:45 am

Concertina wire tops a fence at a detention facility. (Getty Images)

Otero County Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to pay more for people arrested in Otero County held at the Hudspeth County Jail in Sierra Blanca, Texas.

“Hudspeth County houses detainees for Otero County Detention Center when the facility is overcrowded and/or due to short staffing,” wrote Nina Sisler, the Otero County correctional services director, in the request for the item.

Sisler cited “inflation and rising operational costs” as reasons for the increase.

Commissioners passed 18 consent agenda items at the Oct. 12 meeting, including the new contract with updated rates. In the contract, Otero County agrees to pay Hudspeth County $75/per-day, per-person, up from the $60/per day rate, but also be billed for any medical care and additional costs. Both parties could end the contract with written 60-day notice.

It’s unclear how much the increase will cost Otero County.

Otero County spent $866,239 on incarcerating adults in 2022, according to the fiscal year 2023 budget. That’s up from $577,525 in 2021 which nearly doubled the 2020 rate of $295,109.

The fiscal year 2024 budget does not have the same line items, and it’s unclear how much is spent on holding people outside the Otero County detention facility.

Sisler could not be reached by phone for an interview with Source NM Tuesday.

In an interview, Peter Urbina, the Hudspeth County Jail Administrator, could not say how much Otero County has paid for incarceration costs since 2020 and did not have a firm average number of people sent to the jail. He said Hudspeth County holds inmates from jails in surrounding Texas counties, such as Ector County, Reeves County and Pecos County.

A Sept. 5 invoice from Hudspeth County requested $26,940 from Otero County. That invoice does not have a breakdown of how many people are held there, or any additional costs for medical expenses.

By the Numbers

At the Oct. 12 meeting, Sisler told commissioners she had 137 people “in-house,” with 10 people held at the state Otero County Prison Facility and another 5 people in Hudspeth County.

At the July 13 meeting, she said there were 124 people held “in-house” with 13 people held at Otero County Prison Facility and another 17 people in Hudspeth County.

In the May 11 meeting, she said 134 people were held “in-house” with 11 held at the Otero County Prison Facility and 10 people at Hudspeth County.

At the Feb. 9 meeting Sisler said there were 121 people held “in-house” with 19 people at the Otero County Prison Facility and seven people at Hudspeth County. Another 10 were in the Doña Ana County Detention Center, and one person was held in Lincoln county.

At the Jan. 12 meeting, there were 100 people held “in-house,” with 23 at Otero County Prison Facility and 15 at Hudspeth County.

Staffing shortages better, but still a concern

Otero County has been struggling to hire detention center staff, noted as a frequent concern during county meetings, which was a driver in incarcerating people elsewhere outside the county-run facility.

Last year, Otero County’s detention center vacancy rate was above 50% with just over 30 vacancies, and the second highest in the state, according to data from New Mexico Counties.

Sisler told commissioners in October the vacancy rate is down to 17 open positions, or just over 32%.

Grace Philips, the general counsel for New Mexico Counties, said the vacancy rates at local detention centers are constantly moving, but still more than half have at least a 20% vacancy rate.

“The details change on any given day, but the main point is we’re still chronically understaffed,” Philips said.

In August 2022, the county enacted a referral bonus of $0.50 per hour and a $500 hiring bonus, in addition to $1.20/hour in hazard pay for all full-time employees. The hazard pay was reimbursed with federal relief dollars from the public health emergency for the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic.

In August, the Otero County voted to end the referral bonus and hiring bonus, after a presentation from Cassie Green, the Human Resources Director, said they were no longer as effective.

Otero County Commissioner Amy Barela confirmed the county had spent approximately $70,000 on the bonuses and hazard pay.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, commissioners voted to continue the hazard pay until Nov. 1 or until the approximately $22,000 left in federal funds runs out.

Commissioners asked if people received the hiring bonus and immediately quit, since there was almost no waiting period. Green confirmed that three or four recent hires had “left within a short period” after receiving the bonus.

County Attorney RB Nichols told commissioners the county had not enacted a waiting period in part because of complications to payroll calculations, but also because of urgency.

“The liability of not hiring them [detention officers] far outweighed the risk of a few people only working a little bit and leaving,” he told commissioners in the Aug. 10 meeting.


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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.