Citing dangerous conditions, public defenders pause visits with clients in New Mexico’s largest jail

By: - June 14, 2022 11:04 am

The Metropolitan Detention Center, New Mexico’s largest jail, is shown in a screenshot of a Bernalillo County public service announcement from December 2020. (Courtesy of Bernalillo County)

The situation inside the Bernalillo County jail has become so unsafe that New Mexico’s public defenders have temporarily stopped going into the facility, the state’s chief public defender said Monday.

The warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County outside Albuquerque, the largest jail in the state, on June 4 declared a state of emergency that requires guards to report for work and drops limits on overtime pay, the Albuquerque Journal reported Monday.

Jail officials told the newspaper they declared the emergency because there are too few guards to supervise the roughly 1,300 people locked inside.

Over the last several months, the Law Offices of the Public Defender and other defense attorneys have had limited in-person visitations to the jail, Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said in an interview on Monday. They have been going into the pods to meet with their clients about three days per week, he said.

“As of today, we are suspending that visitation, because of concerns for safety of our people,” he said. “I hope it’s a short-term thing.”

Baur said he has a responsibility for the safety of his employees who walk into a jail.

“If we can’t be satisfied that our people are going to be safe, we can’t do it,” he said. “That is a painful decision, because there’s nothing more that a public defender wants to do than see their clients that are in jail. And so this is a hard step — and I hope it’s not for very long — but we have to figure this out.”

For however long client visits are suspended, he said, those people will not have as good legal representation as they need.

“It will for whatever that period of time is, and it’s a terrible thing,” Baur said.

On top of fears of coronavirus spreading in the jail, people inside are struggling through poor medical and psychiatric care, constitutional violations, lockdowns and inhumane conditions, according to former employees, attorneys, court-appointed experts and court documents reviewed by Source New Mexico in January.

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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.