A storm rolls over the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.
Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Off Guard

A crisis looms at New Mexico’s largest jail, plagued by understaffing — and unsafe conditions


by
Joshua Bowling

Update 08/16/2022:

Sgt. Robert Mason, a longtime corrections officer in New Mexico’s largest jail, was placed on paid administrative leave this week after Searchlight New Mexico published an article detailing the jail’s conditions. The article quoted a pair of letters Mason sent to elected leaders, jail officials and county officials, urging them to do something about Metropolitan Detention Center, which many describe as a facility plagued by understaffing and unsafe conditions.

“Though my letters and public comment have gained lots of praise from my staff, support staff, and even some top administration officials, this action is what many worry about and why people are afraid to speak up to any degree,” said Mason.

Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca deferred questions to a county spokesperson, citing her need to attend an afternoon meeting. Spokesperson Tia Bland said she did not know if Mason had been placed on leave.

It’s quiet outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a hulking facility of brick, cinderblock and glass nearly 20 miles west of Albuquerque. On a recent day, cattle graze near the jail’s parking lot and though the Sandia Speedway is just up the road, the tracks are silent. Even the air is fresh — free of the stench of rotten eggs from the Cerro Colorado Landfill just two miles away.

Inside New Mexico’s largest jail, it’s a different story. The long hallways are lined with heaping piles of trash; there aren’t enough guards or custodial staff on hand to remove them. Many of the 1,400 inmates are confined to their cells for up to four days in a row, with no time allowed for a walk in the yard or an opportunity to make a phone call. 

These are the conditions as described by a longtime guard, who wrote two separate letters over the past 13 months to county and state officials, pleading with them to do something about the MDC. The guards are being asked “to work more than they can handle,” Sgt. Robert Mason said.

“Conditions have plummeted into an unimaginable state,” wrote Mason on May 24 in a letter to the Bernalillo County Commission, the county manager and the jail’s chief. “The smell of people not being able to bathe for days and trash piling up in cells can be horrific.”

Shortly before retiring in June, the jail’s chief, Greg Richardson, declared a state of emergency, overriding restrictions on overtime. Instead of easing the problem, it has exacerbated the sense of futility expressed by some guards. 

Safety has become such a concern that New Mexico’s Public Defender’s Office no longer allows its attorneys to set foot in the building to confer with clients. The lack of guards has created an unsafe environment, according to Bennett Baur, the state’s chief public defender.

“They basically bring us into a pod with a bunch of people and say, ‘OK, go talk to your client in the corner,’” Baur said. “And there may or may not be a (correctional officer) in the pod, because they’re like, trying to watch multiple things, because they’re understaffed. Everything’s OK until it’s not. And you just can’t wait until somebody gets hurt.”

Baur is one of many interviewed for this story who evoked the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, one of the most violent prison riots in American history, when describing the present-day conditions at MDC. Substandard, violent, understaffed: Those were the words most often used to describe the penitentiary back in the early hours of Feb. 2, 1980, when inmates overpowered guards and began a 36-hour rampage of brutality and murder that left 33 inmates dead and scores injured. 

These are the same words now used to describe the MDC.

“How many more people must die? How many more staff will carry the scar of responding to an in-custody death?” Mason demanded in his letter to county officials. “Would you or someone you care about want them to be in this environment under these conditions? My wife cries when she gives me a ride to work and sees only a handful of cars scattered throughout the parking lot.”

Chief Public Defender Ben Baur in his office.
Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico
Photos from a Metropolitan Detention Center employee show trash piling up inside a cell.
More than a dozen food containers and several full trash bags are heaped outside the Metropolitan Detention Center’s showers, as seen by a jail employee.
Trash piles up and lines the Metropolitan Detention Center’s long hallways, as seen by a jail employee.
A typical breakfast – dry cereal, two cookies and a sugar packet.

Understaffing at the root of all problems 

Most everyone blames the current situation on understaffing, which is said to be at 50 percent of capacity. Like many issues, it is part of a larger, long-festering problem that dates back almost 30 years, when a coalition of inmates joined a class-action lawsuit against the old jail, then located in downtown Albuquerque. That lawsuit, McClendon v. Albuquerque, laid out a litany of complaints: inmates sleeping on the floors, sexual assaults that were a daily occurrence, nonfunctioning toilets, infestations of “mice, roaches and other vermin.”

The 1995 lawsuit sparked a public outcry and led to the closing of the old jail and the opening of the Metropolitan Detention Center in 2003. The lawsuit itself dragged on for more than two decades before a settlement concluded that 257 conditions, divided into eight “domains,” would have to be resolved.

But though Bernalillo County set a goal for full compliance by 2021, many of the issues described in the original lawsuit persist today, and the matter still is ongoing in court. The jail has achieved compliance with only three of the eight domains, according to MDC Interim Chief Rosanne Otero Gonzales.

“We just want to keep moving forward,” she said. “I think there’s still some work.”

Some of the work will have to address the fact that under-staffing is so severe, inmates aren’t released in a timely manner. Mason recounted cases of inmates held long past their release dates, simply because there aren’t enough employees to process the fingerprinting and other services required to let them out.

“Some of these people have been waiting months to be released due to their sentencing conditions, others have won in the courtroom requiring their release, and others were booked in on charges that did not require them to remain in custody while they go through the judicial process,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, people have spent more time in custody than is required of them.”

‘A giant step back’

Peter Cubra, one of several Albuquerque lawyers who represented inmates in the McClendon suit, claims that the jail has actually “taken a giant step back.”

Last month, the facility’s air conditioning broke down for a week — just as temperatures outside the cinder block walls reached 102 degrees. Recent studies indicate excessive heat can take a toll on mental health, a potentially dangerous situation given that physical and mental health care inside the facility is widely described as inadequate or nonexistent.

In Cubra’s opinion, the only thing that’s changed inside MDC is that it’s no longer “hellishly overcrowded.

“Many of the things that were wrong in 1995 are happening now,” he said. “We’ve got more beds, more footage and roughly the same number of people that we had before. But the staffing is grossly inadequate. The safety, medical and mental health care are not significantly better than 1995.”

In January, MDC nurse Taileigh Sanchez alleged, as part of the ongoing lawsuit, that the jail didn’t have a doctor on site. Sanchez said she had worked in the jail since 2011 and was worried for the safety of everyone inside.

MDC and county officials have denied her allegation, saying that there have consistently been nurse practitioners on staff at the facility.

“We’ve had two on staff this whole time,” said Otero Gonzales, who acknowledged that nurse practitioners are not medical doctors. “But they do a lot of the on-site care for the inmates, and they still have a practicing M.D. that they report to.”

In 2021, MDC contracted out its medical services to a Tennessee-based company called Corizon Health, which has since been acquired by YesCare, a self-described “pioneer and foremost provider of correctional” health care.  According to YesCare, the jail now has eight doctors on site.

Representatives from the company would not respond to detailed questions, but assigned a spokesperson — contracted through a New York public relations firm — to provide this written statement: “YesCare is in the process of overhauling standards and staff in the best interest of the patients we serve at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), and it is our goal to dramatically improve the quality of care from what we inherited in the fall,” wrote Morgan Hook, the contracted spokesperson, adding that the company “inherited” 40 full-time staff vacancies when it took over services in October.

Deaths behind bars

Mason, the jail guard, told Bernalillo County commissioners in June that 16 people have died since the beginning of 2020 — several from complications of substance abuse or by suicide. A 2021 lawsuit alleged that eight of those people died over the span of five months. One inmate who hung himself in his cell in 2020 did so while the guard directly outside that cell slept through the night, according to a November 2021 lawsuit filed by his mother. The lawsuit further claims that, a few days earlier, a suicide risk assessment had identified the inmate as having a psychiatric disorder.

When you consider the population it serves, MDC is likely the biggest provider of behavioral health care in all of New Mexico, according to Adriann Barboa, the Bernalillo County Commission chair. Substance abuse is so systemic, she said, that “If you live in New Mexico, you love someone who is suffering from addiction.”

A 2016 report from the New Mexico Association of Counties found that 35 percent of jail inmates in the state are on prescribed psychotropic drugs. “Jails are de facto mental health hospitals,” it said. A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report found that 44 percent of jail inmates nationally had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. That same year, another report found that 63 percent of sentenced jail inmates were addicted to drugs.

Too little too late 

Bernalillo County is working to boost retention and hire more guards. In July, it approved across-the-board raises for corrections officers, after a federal judge ordered the hiring of an additional 111 guards in the next two years.

Under the plan, new hires will receive a $5,000 signing bonus, while experienced officers — those transferring from other facilities — will get up to $10,000. Pay will increase, from $19.85 to $22.43 per hour for officers with four years or less experience, and from $21.83 to $24.67 per hour for those with five years or more.

But dozens of employees at MDC haven’t stuck around to get those raises. In a three-month period, between May and August of this year, MDC lost 58 employees and now has 238 vacant positions, according to the New Mexico Association of Counties. Similar issues persist in other New Mexico jails. The report found that Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility has 95 vacancies, and county officials in January approved raises for jail employees. 

Money alone won’t fix the problems, according to lawyers and reform advocates who call for change on a deeper level. They say law enforcement officials could choose not to incarcerate people for low-level, non-violent crimes, invest in resources for people experiencing homelessness or expand mental health infrastructure, for starters.

“To correct what’s happening in the jail, you need to look outside the jail,” said Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the ACLU of New Mexico, and himself a former MDC inmate. He sits on the Detention Facility Oversight Management Board, which guides the county’s policies on the jail. “If you don’t have enough staff to watch people, stop putting people in jail. Simple as that.”

It may, in fact, not be so simple. Violent crime in New Mexico and across the country has increased dramatically since the pandemic began in March 2020. The murder rate in Albuquerque was hitting new heights even before COVID-19: It has soared by 147 percent over the past 10 years, according to a July report from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee. 

Yet more than a quarter of MDC bookings in June — 410 men and women — were for misdemeanors, a Bernalillo County jail population dashboard shows.

Mason, for his part, wonders how a jail like MDC will ever attract new employees. “Why,” he wrote, “would anyone who works in corrections want to work in this facility, under these dire circumstances?”

Do you have questions or thoughts about this story? Searchlight invites you to an informal discussion with reporter Joshua Bowling at Hops Brewery in Albuquerque, on Tuesday, Aug. 30 from 7 to 8.30 p.m. Joshua will describe how he reported the story and his hopes for reform. Joining him will be a representative from the state Public Defender’s Office and other Searchlight journalists. Come meet them, share your ideas, and find out more. 

Click here to sign up for the Q&A!