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N.M. penitentiary transfers intensify amid staff shortages and rise in arrests

Inmates are being transferred to the Penitentiary of New Mexico even though PNM’s staff vacancy rate is more than 40%


Photo/New Mexico Corrections Department

By Matthew Reisen
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Officials say the Santa Fe Penitentiary is facing a staff vacancy rate of more than 40%, much higher than that of the Metropolitan Detention Center.

That hasn’t stopped the state Corrections Department from transferring MDC inmates to the prison to lighten the load on jail staff as local law enforcement racks up arrests spurred by the governor’s attempts to tackle gun violence in Bernalillo County.

MDC spokeswoman Candace Hopkins said seven more inmates were transferred to the Santa Fe prison on Nov. 6, bringing the total number moved over the past two months to 32. She said the jail’s staff vacancy rate currently hovers around 33%.

Hopkins said the inmates being moved are “staff intensive,” and even moving one elsewhere can free up multiple corrections officers at the jail.

“MDC will continue to evaluate the need to house our inmates at (the penitentiary), as a result of MDC inmate population numbers and staff availability,” she said.

Brittany Roembach, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Corrections Department, said the Santa Fe prison’s staff vacancy rate is 46%, but that includes positions for a building that’s currently closed for renovations.

In September, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared gun violence a public health emergency, spurring law enforcement to arrest more people on warrants and new charges, leading the jail’s population to swell at times. After the order, the Department of Corrections agreed to help house MDC inmates.

The most recent inmate transfer was the third since the order.

In October, 28 inmates were moved from MDC to the prison as New Mexico State Police, Albuquerque police and Bernalillo County deputies booked 1,441 people into the detention centers, about 400 of them on misdemeanors, over several weeks.

At the height of the arrests, the MDC population ballooned to 1,647 inmates but fell quickly — as it often does — mainly because of inmates being released on their own recognizance.

On Saturday afternoon, the jail’s population was 1,461 inmates.

Hopkins said three of the people initially transferred are no longer at the Santa Fe prison as they were ordered to be released, adding, “any status change in an inmate’s court case, such as a release, or sentence, is being carried out in the same manner it would be if the inmate was here at MDC.”

One of them, Anthony McCain, was released to probation last Thursday after pleading guilty to shoplifting and drug possession.

McCain is one name on a list, obtained by the Journal, of the 32 inmates transferred. The transferees were mostly men and almost all awaiting trial in violent crimes, several of them on murder charges. Court records show that some had been convicted and sentenced to MDC.

A few of the inmates, like McCain, were behind bars on lesser crimes, like drug possession and shoplifting.

Maggie Shepard, a spokesperson for the state Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD), said “almost all” of the inmates transferred were their clients. She said having their clients in Santa Fe has made preparing for hearings difficult as public defenders don’t have time to drive to “meet face to face.”

“They are trying to rely on phone calls, and so far that has been working decently, though not perfectly,” Shepard said.

Albuquerque District Defender Dennica Torres said in a statement that LOPD’s limited access to clients “affects their representation.”

“It is more difficult to prepare for substantive hearings or trials, to get assessments or evaluations completed or even to just get (Release of Information orders) signed,” Torres said.

Shepard also said the clients also have reported spending more time in lockdown at the prison. She added in an email that “folks in prison have been convicted — our clients have NOT.”

Graham Dumas, a public defender, said he has “a ton of concerns” since his client has been transferred to the Santa Fe prison.

There are the “little indignities,” he said. His client’s commissary — how an inmate buys things in jail — didn’t transfer from MDC. More “deeply problematic,” Dumas said, was his client cannot call without being recorded, violating attorney-client privilege, because Dumas is not on Santa Fe prison’s approved attorney list.

Dumas said he has found a workaround, utilizing the help of a prison social worker, but the more hoops to jump through makes it harder to schedule, and some calls have gotten bumped more than a week away.

“I don’t have nearly the type of access I would have were the client still housed at MDC,” he said, adding, “We are preparing for trial on a very serious matter.”


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