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N.M. county jail’s staff shortage worsens, problem spreads statewide, lawmakers told

As of Wed., the Santa Fe County jail had 175 positions and a 44.57 percent vacancy rate with 78 unfilled positions

By Nathan Lederman
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe County jail has one of the highest vacancy rates for county detention centers in New Mexico, and the problem has only gotten worse in recent months.

According to data presented Wednesday to the state Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, the Santa Fe County jail had a 36.9 percent vacancy rate on May 1, with 75 positions unfilled.

Three months later, the rate of vacant jobs at the jail had risen to 46.8 percent, or 95 unfilled positions.

Santa Fe County spokeswoman Sara Smith said, as of Wednesday, the county jail has 175 positions and a 44.57 percent vacancy rate with 78 unfilled positions.

“Our staff to inmate ratio is at a safe and stable level,” Smith wrote. “We reduced our inmate population this year by having the U.S. marshals take back the prisoners we were housing for them on a contractual services agreement.”

Santa Fe is far from the only county in New Mexico to be dealing with increasingly high vacancy rates in their detention facilities, according to data presented Wednesday by Grace Philips.

Philips, who serves as general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, told the committed that from May 2021 to May 2022, all of the state’s county detention facilities hired for up to 2,325 required staffing positions. On May 31, 2021, 2,267 were filled, according to Philips’ data. By May 1, 2022, only 1,372 of these positions were filled.

“We’ve really seen what I consider to be very concerning, even crisis levels, of understaffing in our jails,” Philips said. “To me, you cannot talk about capacity in a detention facility unless you consider how many people you have to run the facility and to run it safely.”

Philips told legislators understaffing is a problem across all industries, but it is a key concern when it comes to jails due to the 24/7 nature of operating a detention facility.

She added, some ways in which facilities across the state are trying to alleviate vacancies are raising salaries, increasing benefits and instituting recruitment or referral bonuses.

Smith said Santa Fe’s Board of County Commissioners approved salary increases for corrections officers in June, raising starting pay from $17.50 to $21.34 an hour after an eight-week academy for someone with no correctional experience. Officers with three years’ experience earn a starting pay of $22.34 an hour, while those with five years’ experience get up to $23.71, she said.

“These new salaries put our officers near the top in terms of salary in the state at both jails and the state Corrections Department,” Smith wrote. “Our HR department continues to actively recruit and fill our vacant positions at the [jail].”

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D- Las Cruces, co-chairman of the committee, said he asked to discuss issues at county jails because of recent coverage regarding an increase in suicide deaths at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.

“Their staffing for that facility went from an already deplorable [37.8] percent vacancy [rate] to 50 percent vacancy. They’re incapable of providing half of what that facility should be capable of providing,” Cervantes said. “That should shock us.”

Cervantes added without adequate staffing, it should be no surprise inmate deaths have increased at the facility.

“Why are we surprised we’re seeing an increase in suicides? There’s nobody watching the people. There’s no staff there to be watching the people,” Cervantes said. “I can’t imagine my business operating at half speed and expecting anything but a half-assed response.”

The Santa Fe County jail has seen sixth inmate deaths — and one confirmed suicide — from Sept. 1, 2021, to Sept. 5, 2022, according to data provided by the county. Three of those deaths occurred in about a month’s span from mid-August to mid-September 2022.

Philips responded by referring to bonuses facilities are offering to maintain staffing. However, Cervantes said it’s clear from the data current efforts to alleviate vacancies have not been working.

Cervantes also asked whether accredited detention facilities are required to have a certain level of staffing in New Mexico to operate. While facilities housing adults have no such requirement, Philips said juvenile detention centers are required to have “sufficient staffing.”

Cervantes said it may be a good idea to institute a required staffing level requirement for county facilities, although he acknowledged county governments may not look favorably on the suggestion.

“What arguments would be made that we need to have a certain staffing level for juveniles, but not a staffing level for adults? What is different about the protections needed for adults that’s not needed for young people?” Cervantes asked.

He said while jails may be incentivized to fix their vacancy rates, it may take the public and the Legislature pushing for set staffing requirements to fix the problem. With low staffing resulting in the closure of wings at some jails, he said as crime is increasing, low staffing may hamper counties’ ability to address it.

“We’ve got a public that I think is clamoring for some response to public safety, and the increase in crime,” Cervantes said. “We’re seeing an explosion of crime, but we’re also shutting down the ability to incarcerate people.”

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