4 Investigates: Corrections officers, inmates link community spread to unsafe COVID prison conditions | KOB 4

4 Investigates: Corrections officers, inmates link community spread to unsafe COVID prison conditions

Chris Ramirez
Updated: December 28, 2020 12:41 PM
Created: December 27, 2020 09:40 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For months, New Mexico has been warned about the community spread of COVID-19. Both inmates and corrections officers inside the state prison system believe some of that spread is linked to unsafe practices within prison walls.

Corrections Officers Speak Out

The KOB 4 Investigates Team met with Ernie Garcia, a corrections officer who left his job at the Central New Mexico Corrections Facility in Los Lunas and is just shy of twenty years.  He said he left out of fear of getting sick and dying.

“[Corrections officers] have no clue if they're going to catch it,” Garcia said.  “They could die. Me being a diabetic, I took it very, very seriously."

As of this publishing, 23 inmates had died of COVID-19, more than 2,300 tested positive and nearly 600 remain sick.  Updated information can be found by clicking here. 

Photos obtained by KOB 4 Investigates show corrections officers at the Los Lunas prison not wearing a face mask while on prison property or not wearing masks properly over their mouths and noses.

Garcia said the New Mexico Corrections Department issued one paper face mask for officers back in the spring, but never again.

“I just think it wasn't taken seriously,” Garcia said.  “People were like— it is what it is. And when you see supervisors and high ranking captains not wearing a mask, that was highly disappointing.”

Another corrections officer who still works inside the prison system spoke to KOB 4 on a condition of anonymity, for fear of losing his job.  He said the department does not have personal protective equipment available for staff who work with COVID-positive inmates.   He told us he had to help transport a very sick COVID-19 positive inmate from a prison to UNM Hospital. While in the back of the ambulance, the paramedics were in full PPE, but that corrections officer had nothing but a cloth face mask.  He said he later tested positive for COVID-19, and then soon after—so did his wife and kids.  

Inmates Speak Out

Fifty-six inmates from the State Penitentiary in Santa Fe signed onto a hand-written emergency petition sent to the New Mexico Supreme Court. They alleged inmates have become sick due to the state’s negligence.  The inmates claimed they were issued one hand made face mask made of a low thread count fabric without any spares to wear while they hand washed the one they have. 

They also alleged common spaces are not sanitized, and that they do not have access to cleaning supplies like rags and bleach. They claimed when an inmate in a bunk-style dormitory tests positive, he remains in his bunk instead of being placed in quarantined, exposing everyone else in the bunk.

“Social distancing does not apply here,” inmate Christopher Martinez told KOB 4 in a phone interview.  “There is absolutely no way to social distance within the dorm.  To begin with, corrections officer would wear [face masks] on a 50 percent ratio time frame.  The masks that they would wear are the vented ones, so it’s for the CO's protection rather than the inmates' protection."

Martinez and the other plaintiffs in the case allege being exposed to deadly virus without sufficient safeguards amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of their constitutional rights.   

Getting Answers

"I feel very strongly that our staff in our facilities has done absolutely everything they can to keep themselves and their officers safe,” Corrections Secretary Alisha Lucero Tafoya said in response to the allegations laid out by inmates and her own employees. 

Sec. Lucero Tafoya agreed that the photos showing prison staff on prison grounds not wearing masks or wearing them improperly is a policy violation, but she disagreed with the claim that prison staff are not given adequate PPE.

“We provide PPE to all of our staff and all of our inmates, particularly when a person is working in a COVID unit, then they have full PPE,” Sec. Lucero Tafoya said. “That includes the N-95 mask, the gown, face shields, goggles and gloves.”

Sec. Lucero Tafoya stated that some inmates may not have access to cleaning supplies due to security reasons, but she said the department has doubled its supply of cleaning and hygiene supplies in all facilities.

When KOB 4 discussed the situation with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, she said plans on holding people accountable who don’t follow COVID-19 safe practices.

“These are life and death issues,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said.  “We expect people to adhere to them.  And when they don't, we are citing folks.  We cite ourselves if we're not managing a facility correctly. Employees are responsible for showing up with their masks on and following all of those infection control public health COVID-safe practices. They’re held accountable.”

A Department of Corrections spokesman added that temporary housing is available to prison staff who test positive and need to quarantine away from family members.

The Disconnect

It’s difficult to not see a disconnect between how prison-insiders view the situation and how those in Santa Fe offices see it. Prison staff and inmates describe a place that they believe is not safe and is putting their health along with the greater community’s health at risk. Yet, the Corrections Secretary believes prison staff is doing the best they can.

“I really find it concerning if staff are feeling that way because we really have done everything we can to minimize the spread and minimize the introduction of COVID-19 into our institutions,” Sec. Lucero Tafoya.

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