Understaffing at N.M. detention center leads to state of emergency
At more than half vacant, Metropolitan Detention Center's situation appears particularly dire
By Elise Kaplan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Understaffing at the Metropolitan Detention Center is nothing new.
Correctional officers are frequently made to work overtime and are often tasked with watching more than one pod — composed of 32 cells each — at a time. Inmates remain on lockdown for entire weekends, without the ability to shower or make phone calls, and photos from inside the facility show trash piling up in the hallways and plastic foam food containers spilling out of trash cans and dumpsters.
Currently, the correctional officer vacancy rate is more than 50%.
But recently drastic measures had to be taken.
Around 2 a.m. on June 4, after consulting with supervisors and the union president, MDC Chief Greg Richardson declared a state of emergency that would set aside overtime limits and require correctional officers to come in to work. It was the first time anyone can remember a state of emergency being called at the facility due to short staffing.
Joseph Trujeque, the president of the union representing MDC officers, said there were only 13 correctional officers and two supervisors scheduled for the day shift — which is from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. He said the facility needed at least eight more officers in order to fill essential positions.
"Like dormitory units where there's no doors, so we have to staff an officer in there," Trujeque said. "I think one of them was like a medical unit and psychiatric unit ... There has to be an officer in there ... We just didn't have enough staff to move anybody from other places to accomplish that."
After the state of emergency was called, some officers volunteered to stay on overtime since they were going to be forced to anyway. Others were called up and told to come in. The state of emergency remained in place into the swing shift.
Trujeque said several correctional officers ended up working 16-hour shifts. He said although the emergency declaration meant they could be made to work for a full 24 hours, it didn't come to that.
Richardson said it's been tough to fill positions on many weekends at the jail. To address that, the administration in May began offering double pay starting at 11 p.m. on Thursdays through 11 p.m. on Mondays. But, Richardson said, for whatever reason on June 4 there were not enough people on the roster.
"We also have people that are on days off. We also have people that are entitled to take vacation. We also have people that are on sick leave, we have other people that are using other types of leave ...," Richardson said. "Even though you do your staffing plans and stuff like that, you still end up short, unfortunately."
He said with the overall staffing shortage at the facility, the same situation might happen again.
"The belief is it could," Richardson said. "We hope that it doesn't, but it could."
The sprawling Metropolitan Detention Center is on the outskirts of Bernalillo County, almost 20 miles from Downtown Albuquerque. Over the past month it has housed an average of more than 1,300 inmates each night.
Trujeque said the vacancy rate among correctional officers is 51.09%. Staff with Corizon Health, the jail's medical provider, have also been raising concerns about their staffing levels.
Trujeque said having fewer correctional officers increases the possibility that inmates could riot, get into physical fights or hurt themselves. Two inmates have killed themselves in the jail so far this year.
While officials are quick to point out that staffing at correctional facilities has always been an issue — and staffing in all industries has taken a hit since the pandemic — at more than half vacant, MDC's situation appears particularly dire.
The deputy cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Corrections Department said its vacancy rate is 29.9%. The warden of the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility said its vacancy rate is 40%.
At $20 per hour and $20.72 per hour respectively, both facilities offer a higher starting pay than MDC — where after graduating, cadets are paid $18.90 per hour.
CoreCivic, which runs three private detention facilities in the state, would not disclose its vacancy rates. A spokesman said officers are paid $18 per hour.
Last October, Bernalillo County raised officer pay and began offering a $2,000 hiring bonus and a longevity package to try to attract more staff to MDC.
The union is continuing to negotiate to raise pay and triple the hiring bonus, Trujeque said.
Trujeque, who has worked at MDC for 21 years, said his hourly rate is $21.83 per hour. However, he said, he is making more than $100,000 a year due to overtime.
"We need people to come work in the jail," Trujeque said. "The jail is a great place to work, especially if you want to make a lot of money."
Last January, the Bernalillo County Commission passed an emergency resolution regarding staffing at the jail.
The resolution directed the county to explore the appropriation of additional funding to upgrade the jail's technology and explore increasing the budget for MDC's recruitment department. It also directed them to request assistance from the New Mexico National Guard — including asking them to return the 13 correctional officers who are with the guard — and temporarily transfer county employees to do administrative work at the jail.
Richardson said the jail did receive more funding to upgrade the call boxes in inmate's cells, the master controls and the security swipe card system. He said those projects have gone out for requests for proposals. He said no additional funding has been allocated to recruitment efforts. Five or six county employees were transferred to the jail but have since returned to their normal duties.
As for the National Guard, Richardson said the county had requested its assistance three times — once in January, once on May 31, and once last week. He said guardsmen couldn't do correctional officer duties but could do administrative tasks — such as staff the front desk — which would free up officers.
However, Richardson said, those requests were all denied.
"I did receive a call again last night from the adjutant general," he said. "There are only two areas that he described to me that the National Guard is focusing on and those are areas where emergencies have been declared. So they can still assist with COVID-19 — anything involving or caused by COVID-19 — and with the fires."
Richardson said the 12 correctional officers who are national guardsmen are on active duty and the one who wasn't resigned from the jail when he found out he'd have to return to the facility.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Walt Benson said he wasn't notified the state of emergency had been declared at the jail on June 4 but he did hear about it "through the grapevine."
He said he doesn't think anyone is satisfied with where things stand. He added that recruiting new staff has been harder than they expected but he thinks more should be done.
"That might mean higher wages, I don't know," Benson said. "It might be better retention tools, the total employment package probably needs to be more aggressive if we're going to crack this nut."
Richardson said MDC has participated in several hiring fairs around the county.
The jail holds classes for cadets every 10 weeks and he said in the past they would see 12 to 15 people sign up, although some classes had as many as 24.
The most recent class?
"It's been sparse — I'm not going to hold anything back," Richardson said. "I just swore in another four officers this morning."
(c)2022 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)