5 New Mexico jails less than half staffed; 1 moving inmates

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Five of New Mexico’s 26 county jails and detention centers are suffering from staff shortages that have pushed vacancy rates among correctional officers above 50%.

At least one has resorted to transporting inmates to other facilities, including one in Texas 166 miles (267 kilometers) away, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

The Otero County Detention Center in Alamogordo, which is half staffed with 32 officers, reached a critical point two weeks ago when there weren’t enough officers to walk the floor among the inmates, Otero County Attorney R.B. Nichols said.

That prompted the administration’s request for help from other facilities. Five agreed to house more than 100 inmates between them, he said.

All are at least 60 miles (96 km) from the detention center, including the Otero County Prison Facility, the Lincoln County Detention Center and the Doña Ana County Detention Center.

The others are farther — 132 miles (212 km) to the Luna County Detention Center, and 166 miles (267 km) to the Hudspeth County Jail in Sierra Blanca, Texas.

The jail tried to keep inmates who are going to trial soon in Otero County, Nichols said. But inmates at other facilities have missed hearings, including ones held remotely.

“There was some kind of confusion on where they were and what the responsibilities were of the facilities that took them on,” said Nichols. “There were a lot of logistics that come with it. It’s not ideal. We’re working through those difficulties trying to do the best we can.”

While the Otero County Detention Center is the only jail that has had to take such drastic steps, the staffing situation has become dire in many other facilities around the state.

New Mexico Counties, an organization that represents counties in the state, reported in May 2021 nearly all the statewide detention positions were filled. A year later, 40% of the positions were vacant.

Joining the Otero County Detention Center with vacancy rates of more than 50% are jails in Bernalillo, Chaves and Curry counties, as well as the Bernalillo County juvenile detention center. Grace Philips, general counsel at New Mexico Counties, said the situation is unprecedented.

“We’ve had facilities in the past, on occasion, that have had staffing issues,” she said. “But … this extreme vacancy level and so widespread is not something that we’ve seen before.”

As of Aug. 1, there were 14 county jails that had staff vacancy rates above 20%.

“The problem with having high vacancy rates in a jail is it becomes much harder to recruit anybody because they’re concerned about working in an understaffed secure facility,” Philips said. “I think it’s a problem that contributes to itself.”

In Otero County, the supervising attorney with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said the change has sparked confusion among her colleagues, their clients and clients’ family members, who were given no warning that people would be moved.

Dayna Jones said the phones at her office are blowing up with people asking how they can contact their incarcerated relatives or how they can put money in their accounts. The move has also proven challenging for attorneys.

“We can’t get hold of a lot of our clients,” Jones said.