Jonathan Ayala has one bath towel left.

An inmate in the Santa Fe County jail, Ayala has cut his only other towel into rags so he can clean the tables and showers in his dorm-like living area. He’s worried about the potential for COVID-19 to spread in the jail — a cramped environment that, according to him and other inmates, lacks proper cleaning supplies.

“We’re just spreading all this filth around the pod,” said Ayala, who has been incarcerated at the jail since Feb. 18.

While those of us in the outside world are being urged by government officials to wash our hands and distance ourselves from others to limit the spread of COVID-19, people living inside a jail don’t have these options. Searchlight spoke by phone with five men incarcerated in one pod of the county’s Adult Correctional Facility, off N.M. 14. They said they were sharing phones, tables and showers with more than a dozen others (as of last Friday), and they all spoke of a dearth of sanitizing supplies, including clean rags. 

And soap. Inmates are given some when they enter the jail. Once that runs out, they can purchase more from the jail shop for just over a buck a bar, they said. If they don’t have enough money, they can qualify for “indigent soap.” The tiny bars are distributed once every week or two, inmates said.

“One little bar of soap and one little bottle of shampoo every week,” said Diego Fernandez, who has been in the jail since March 6. “That’s not enough to last, you know.” 

Winston Stowe, who’s been in the jail since March 2, said that the indigent soap is “not enough to shower every day, much less wash your hands.” He’s still able to afford his own soap, but that might change — his mother was recently laid off from her job at a salon.

Cleanliness is often an issue inside prisons and jails across the country, but now it is especially critical — if COVID-19 starts spreading in the jail, inmates may need to be taken out and treated in regular hospitals. Those hospitals, already bracing for an unprecedented wave of patients, could be further pressed for space and supplies as they struggle to respond to the pandemic. 

In less than three months, the virus has killed nearly 600 people in the U.S. and just over 16,000 around the world, as of Monday afternoon. 

In order to alleviate stress on the health system and save lives, certain jails in other states are releasing some of their inmates. It’s a pre-emptive move to stop COVID-19 from spreading through the facilities. In New Mexico, Sandoval County officials requested a state court order to release everyone being held for nonviolent crimes. The court is expected to consider the matter Tuesday.

After Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency on Mar. 11, the county took steps to keep COVID-19 out of the jail, said Santa Fe County spokesperson Carmelina Hart. That included shutting down visits, ramping up cleaning of shared surfaces like tables and doorknobs and separating new inmates to see if they develop symptoms. They also set up a quarantine unit for inmates who are showing signs of the disease.

Hand soap is plentiful, Hart said. “They are given soap, and they are given enough soap.” She disputed the inmates’ accounts that indigent soap is distributed infrequently, saying they can get more soap “whenever they need it.”

The jail has a healthy stock of cleaning supplies, Hart said, adding that no inmates have filed written complaints on the topic.

As of Monday, two inmates at the jail had been tested for COVID-19, she said. One inmate tested negative. The other was tested on Mar. 17, and, six days later, the test results had not yet come back. Both inmates were being kept in separate cells in a quarantine unit.

The jail provides cleaning supplies to sanitize surfaces in common areas. A cleaning cart is wheeled in daily and left with the inmates, according to Hart and the inmates.

But, Ayala said, the cart isn’t always adequately stocked.

“Sometimes, it’s missing either the broom, or the stick to the broom, or the dustpan or the dust mop,” he said. Sometimes the mop smells like mold.

Jonathan Fava, who has been jailed since December, said bottles of cleaning supplies at times are missing the sprayer mechanisms. “We just get the bottles and sprinkle them on the tables, on the showers.” Sometimes, the cleaning agents are so diluted that he supplements them with his own soap.

Hart said the cleaning cart is fully stocked and that inmates are provided with rags. 

She expressed concern over inmates cutting up their bath towels to use as rags — and gratitude for being alerted to the situation.

“Thank you for letting us know that they are cutting up bath towels with something,” Hart said. “We’re going to look into that, to see if there are any knives or scissors or anything in the facility that would cause a safety concern.”

But for the inmates, cleanliness is at the top of their minds — even if they know they’re not supposed to be damaging county property.

“A lot of us cut up our towels, and then we get in trouble for cutting up our towels,” Ayala said. “We’d rather use the towels that [are] clean rather than something that’s dirty.”

Ike Swetlitz has traveled the world to hold policymakers, businesses, and scientists accountable. At Searchlight, he is focusing on criminal justice. He most recently reported for STAT, the national health...