Report: N.M. will soon run out of room for prisoners

By Andrew Oxford
aoxford@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 7/17/18

New Mexico's prison system will have more inmates in the next few years than it currently has cells to hold them, the state sentencing commission's latest forecast says.The annual report shows New …

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Report: N.M. will soon run out of room for prisoners

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New Mexico's prison system will have more inmates in the next few years than it currently has cells to hold them, the state sentencing commission's latest forecast says.

The annual report shows New Mexico bucking a national trend as the number of Americans locked up in state and federal prisons shrinks and as crime has generally declined during the last few decades.

But crime has risen in New Mexico in recent years, particularly in Albuquerque. The state's poverty rate remains among the country's highest. And the number of people in the state's prison system has outpaced the number released.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Corrections Department retains some inmates who are eligible for release, often because they do not have housing or because of case backlogs and problems with paperwork. Moreover, the state's prisons are aging, raising the question of where exactly New Mexico will imprison what is expected to be a growing number of inmates.

"We're not that many years out from exceeding operational capacity," Linda Freeman of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission told the Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

By fiscal year 2024, the system is projected to hold 7,192 men, exceeding current capacity of 7,124.

That same year, the number of women in New Mexico's prisons will reach 854, more than the current capacity of about 850, Freeman said.

The number of men in New Mexico's prisons has grown during the last decade from 6,012 in fiscal year 2008 to 6,605 in fiscal year 2018.

And the number of women has grown at an even faster clip, from 629 to 797 -- a record high -- in that same time.

The forecast, assembled by the commission's small staff, does not explain all the factors that may be driving the prison population growth.

But it does point out that a larger share of New Mexico's inmates are in prison for violent crimes and drug offenses than the rest of the country, while fewer are in prison on property or public order offenses.

According to the report, more men were locked up for parole violations and what are known as serious violent offenses than for any other charges during fiscal year 2017. And the number of men incarcerated for drug possession has risen in the last year, too. Meanwhile, more women were admitted to prison during that same time for parole violations and for drug possession than for any other category of crimes.

And in fiscal year 2017, half of inmates were back in prison within three years of release, according to legislative analyses.

Meanwhile, the state's prisons are getting older.

Deputy Corrections Department Secretary Jerry Roark told lawmakers the state's prisons are more than 30 years old, have more than $300 million in deferred maintenance and are all beyond useful their useful life.

About half of New Mexico's inmates are held in prisons run by private companies.

Roark said it can cost between $104 and $120 a day to house an inmate in a state-run prison while it costs between $58 to $70 a day plus about $21 for medical expenses at a private facility. But those private facilities are designed to operate with fewer staff, lowering direct costs, Roark said.

He added that the state's prisons were mostly designed after the infamous 1980 penitentiary riot near Santa Fe and in turn designed to control and contain inmates, not necessarily provide classroom space or other facilities for programs that might help prepare inmates to leave the corrections system.

"The facilities that were awesome 30 years ago remind of the facility that was burned down," said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Grants, referring to the old state penitentiary effectively destroyed in that bloody 1980 riot. "That concrete was not made to last forever. It worries me there are going to be problems in the future."

But lawmakers pointed to other issues within the prison system that are adding to the growing inmate population.

For example, the prison system holds about 120 people who are eligible for release, Roark told the Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

The Associated Press found that the state has held many inmates for all or part of their parole. Often, those who should be freed are held because they are unable to find or afford suitable housing outside prison, the AP found. Other times, inmates who should be freed are held because of missing paperwork or administrative backlogs. In all, though, these inmates are not only trapped but can cost the state government millions of dollars a year, according to the AP.

"It's a problem," Roark told lawmakers on Monday.

And earlier this year, New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter also found pardons have fallen under Gov. Susana Martinez.

All of this has led lawmakers to question how to curb recidivism, ensure parolees do not violate the terms of their release and get the state to release inmates on time.

Some lawmakers signaled they would be hesitant to approve more funding for building prisons while they face demands to address other priorities.

"Do we want to build more prisons or do we want to build more public schools?" said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque.

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