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Due to Steps Taken by New Mexico Officials, Only Sex Offenders Present When Prison Overwhelmed by COVID-19

New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility is unusual in that half of it is used by the federal government and half by the New Mexico Department of Corrections (DOC). Both sides are run by private prison operator Management & Training Corporation, or MTC. The state side has the only Sex Offender Treatment Program in the DOC, which means almost all the 539 prisoners are convicted sex offenders. There is a 44-bed dormitory physically separated from the rest of the facility utilized to house non-sex-offenders.

The federal side holds prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security—mostly on drug charges. Next door is the Otero County Processing Center, which holds detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

In early March 2020, prisoners and staff began testing positive for COVID-19 on the federal side of the prison. Nonetheless, the DOC continued to pack more sex offenders into its most crowded prison, shipping them to Otero from the 10 other state prison systems. At the same time, the DOC quietly removed all 39 non-sex-offenders from Otero. The practice of shipping in more sex offenders did not cease until the first state prisoner tested positive in late March. By then, they had packed over 500 sex offenders into the prison’s tiny dormitories, where prisoners slept no more than 3 feet apart. 

The expected happened. By June 24, 2020, 434 (81%) state prisoners, all sex offenders, had been infected by the coronavirus. Three had died and another eight had been hospitalized. At the same time, 275 (58%) of federal prisoners had contracted the virus. So many Otero prisoners had become infected that, on June 21, 2020, they made up 30% of the state’s total new infections. As of June 26, 2020, 855 people at the two prisons had tested positive—almost 8% of the total number of positive cases in New Mexico at that time. 

As of the end of June, only three other DOC prisons had a coronavirus infection, in each case just one.  

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order on April 6, 2020, to allow for early release of prisoners from the DOC because of the danger of COVID-19. As of the end of June, 71 around 6,200 DOC prisoners had been released pursuant to Grisham’s order.

To date, none of the Otero prisoners have been released under the executive order. 

Why? The order has several conditions. The prisoner must be within 30 days of the end of the sentence; have a parole plan in place; not be serving time for domestic abuse, felony DWI, assaulting a police officer or any crime with a firearms enhancement; and not be a sex offender. Even if prisoners are otherwise eligible, they are not if they are a sex offender, even if that was a past offense and they are now incarcerated for something else.Clearly, the governor is not interested in sex offenders who are endangered by a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease. 

“Whatever we have decided as a society to do to punish people, regardless of whether we think all of those things are justified or make sense, we as a society have not sentenced people to suffer in a disease-ridden cage,” said Lalita Moskowitz, an American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico staff attorney. 


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