N.M. jail struggles to fill vacant jobs

Jail had a 44 percent vacancy rate in June - double the rate from the prior year


By Claudia L. Silva
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe County jail has struggled to stay staffed over the past 1 1/2 years, with a 44 percent vacancy rate in June, according to the county's Public Safety Department's monthly report.

The June figure was nearly double what it was at the same time last year.

The escape of an inmate last week has raised questions about the jail's ability to conduct regular operations amid the struggle to add staff members.

On Tuesday, Santa Fe County jail staff mistakenly released an inmate, prompting a county-wide search. Authorities believes 35-year-old Jarrod Bearden tricked jail staff into letting him go by using another inmate's identity.

It took roughly 45 minutes before jail officials noticed the error and sounded the alarm on Bearden's escape. He was recaptured about 24 hours later at Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center.

In an email sent by county spokeswoman Sara Smith, Warden Derek Williams said staffing shortages have not affected the jail's security and insisted staffing levels that evening had nothing to do with the mistaken release of Bearden.

"This incident was the result of human error," Williams said. "The inmate misrepresented himself to correctional officers. Had standard operations procedures been followed, the misrepresentation would have been caught."

Williams said the jail's staffing issues are due to a "dramatic reduction in qualified applicants" since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. He did not disclose the total number of officers working in the facility or the number of inmates being housed there. However, he said the jail has maintained a high staff-to-inmate ratio due to a decline in the jail population.

"We are fortunate enough in Santa Fe to have adequate staff and an electronic communication system in place that allows inmates to report concerns or issues they are having directly to officers on duty," Williams said.

In response to the rising vacancy rate and the pandemic, the jail relocated approximately 125 inmates after pausing a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service that required the jail to house federal inmates.

The jail hasn't always had such staffing issues. In 2020, the vacancy rate fluctuated but stayed below 20 percent. By April 2021, the rate reached 22 percent and rose gradually, eventually hitting a high of 49 percent of jobs unfilled in January.

"We lose officers from time to time when they are recruited by other agencies, and some leave us to pursue other careers. But the cause of the high vacancies is not enough people are willing to apply," Williams said.

District 5 County Commissioner Hank Hughes said staffing issues are not unique to the jail or to Santa Fe County.

"There are lots of vacancies everywhere," Hughes said during a phone interview.

In 2021, more than 47 million American workers voluntarily quit their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — a phenomenon called the "Great Resignation."

Vacancies are nothing new for jails and prisons. Even before the pandemic, corrections officers experienced high stress levels, burnout and mental health issues, leading to high turnover rates, according to the U.S. National Institute of Justice.

The pandemic only exacerbated the issue, leaving many state prisons and local jails severely understaffed.

Williams said most county jails in the state are dealing with high vacancy rates. Twelve of the state's 33 counties have vacancy rates that exceed 25 percent, and 10 have vacancy rates that rise above 30 percent, he said.

In 2021, state prisons in New Mexico had an average staff vacancy rate of 27 percent in public facilities and 25 percent for privately operated prisons, according to the state Corrections Department.

Williams said the county has tried to increase the jail's staffing by raising pay and recruiting at job fairs across the state.

In January, Santa Fe County commissioners approved a collective bargaining agreement that gave jail employees pay raises of 3 to 11 percent. In June, the board approved an additional 3 percent cost of living increase. Williams said this increased starting pay for officers from $17.50 to $21.34 an hour. He said experienced officers can earn up to $23.71 an hour.

"These new salaries put our officers near the top in terms of salary in the state at both jails and state corrections departments," he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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