New Mexico has long relied on private prisons more than almost any other state — something that Michelle Lujan Grisham was deeply critical of in her 2018 campaign for governor. Since taking office, she has converted three of them to state-run facilities.

But those changes came with a steep price tag: New Mexico is now on the hook for $217 million in rent over the next 20 years, with long-term leases that will keep all three prisons open at the same time that the state’s inmate population is steadily falling.

Today, reform advocates, policy analysts and some state lawmakers are questioning whether New Mexico would have been better off shuttering the prisons altogether.

“I think there’s a tendency for politicians to think they can score an easy win with progressives by sidelining these private corporations,” said Steven Robert Allen, director of the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, a coalition of attorneys that advocates for improved conditions for inmates. But just taking over a facility doesn’t dramatically reform the system, he said. “It accomplishes so little in terms of addressing mass incarceration and the trail of destruction.”

In 2019, the state assumed control of the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility, a 628-bed prison in rural Clayton, a town of some 3,000 near the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Its private operator, the Florida-based GEO Group Inc., had announced that it intended to close the prison because it was too difficult to keep staffed at the required levels. Rather than shut it down, the state stepped in and took over operations; state and local officials at the time stressed how important it was to protect jobs in a small town like Clayton.

Last November, the state took control of two more private prisons — the 673-bed Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Grants and the 590-bed Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, operated by CoreCivic and GEO Group, respectively.

New Mexico does not own any of these buildings. Instead, it pays millions of dollars per year in rent, according to state documents. 

A New Mexico Corrections Department spokesperson acknowledged that state officials neglected to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before taking control. “Formal cost analysis was not conducted,” Carmelina Hart wrote in an email to Searchlight New Mexico. “The motivating factors” for the transition were instead “due to the safety of staff, the community, and inmates in our care,” she wrote.

Inmate numbers dwindling

The state’s prison population has been steadily dropping since 2019, when Lujan Grisham took office. New Mexico had 5,852 people serving time this year, according to a report from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, compared to 7,428 three years ago. The report forecasts that the number will drop to 4,822 in 10 years’ time. 

“(I) find it difficult to understand why we need more empty beds,” said State Rep. Phelps Anderson (I-Roswell), who at a hearing last year asked corrections officials if they would consider closing down the prisons.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, said in an email that the move to take over these facilities has been a win for New Mexico. Neither she nor a spokesperson for the Corrections Department, however, disputed the potential $217 million in rent payments as predicted by Searchlight.

“The state has always been clear that its goal in transitioning privately-managed prisons to state oversight has been prioritizing the safety of the facilities and moving New Mexico away from its dependence on private for-profit prison operators, offering better pay and benefits in safer facilities,” she wrote.

CoreCivic and the GEO Group refused to comment.

Ever-rising rents

New Mexico is paying millions to rent these prisons through lease agreements designed to extract more money out of the state each year. And according to the lease agreements, New Mexico cannot buy any of the facilities, Hart said.

For example, the lease with CoreCivic for the Grants prison is renewable through 2041, with rent set to increase by 2.5 percent each year. Renewing the lease through 2041 would ultimately cost the state $99.6 million.

And that’s just for one facility. The total figure for rental costs is projected to more than double if the state renews all three leases to their fullest extents. At that point, the combined total would come to nearly $217 million.

In addition to renting the facilities, New Mexico is now responsible for the cost of operating them. In the case of Clayton, operating costs shot up 22 percent from 2019 to 2020, its first full year under state control, according to a 2021 Legislative Finance Committee report.

Meanwhile, private corporations will be enriched on the state’s dime, analysts warn. “GEO and CoreCivic, as private companies, may negotiate leases that allow them to profit, resulting in even greater costs to the agency,” the LFC report said. “The agency’s plan to continue to convert private prison facilities to public operation, rather than reducing unused bed space, will likely lead to further cost escalation.” 

CoreCivic and the GEO Group are poised to collect millions in rent as prison landlords. Though CoreCivic reported a net loss of $1.3 million for the first six months of 2021 at the Grants facility,  it’s set to collect $4.2 million in rent over the next year. The GEO Group, for its part, is set to collect $4 million in rent over the next year.

Private reliance

New Mexico for decades disproportionately relied on private prisons.

An August report from the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based criminal justice reform advocacy group, found that 45 percent of New Mexico inmates were held in private prisons in 2020. Only one state, Montana, had a higher percentage, with half its inmates serving sentences in private facilities.

Upon taking office, Lujan Grisham significantly cut back on the number of privately operated prisons, so that now only two remain. Though this might sound like a good thing, reform advocates say the move has done little to solve the problems facing New Mexicans in prison — for inmates and guards alike.

Court documents allege that the Clayton prison, for one, is increasingly dangerous and understaffed.

“NMCD and its (Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility) Warden Mark Gentry are deliberately causing an escalating pattern of group prison violence,” wrote inmate David Peterson, in a handwritten June court document. Among his allegations: For eight hours one night in May, there were only two guards in the entire prison; guards routinely beat and use pepper spray on inmates; and “bad prison management (is) deliberately designed to provoke violence.”

Allen, the director of the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, which represents Peterson, has raised similar concerns.

Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero declined to talk to Searchlight for this story. Last year, however, she defended the decision not to close the prisons. Testifying to the LFC, she said that it was better to maintain open beds in case inmate populations ever increase. (Overcrowding is commonly blamed as a cause of the deadly 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot, which killed 33 inmates and left dozens more injured.)

Corrections spokesperson Hart told Searchlight that the state has more control now that it runs the prisons: “By reducing the number of private beds in the state, NMCD has increased control over safety,” she said in an email, adding that the Santa Rosa prison had so few prison guards under GEO Group’s control that the Corrections Department had to transfer half its inmates elsewhere.

Many dispute that reasoning. Mark Donatelli, one of the lead attorneys on the landmark Duran v. King lawsuit, the 1977 case responsible for New Mexico’s prison reforms, said the state should  consider closing some of its prisons. He recalled telling former Gov. Bill Richardson that there was no need to build a prison in Clayton. Richardson apparently didn’t agree, because the Clayton prison rose out of the ground in 2007 and processed its first inmate a year later.

“We didn’t need Clayton and we could really shut down thousands of beds of existing capacity,”  Donatelli said. “GEO was never able to staff that place … When GEO said sayonara, we should have said ‘Thank you, see you later.’”

Work that’s not wanted

Prisons are big employers in New Mexico’s small towns. When the state took over the facilities  in Clayton, Grants and Santa Rosa, it converted 294 jobs to state jobs with a mix of security and administrative positions.

In Clayton, the transition created 117 state jobs, though 41 percent still remain unfilled, according to the Corrections Department. In Grants, the transition created 75 state jobs. In Santa Rosa, it created 102.

The Corrections Secretary in 2019 acknowledged the “need to maintain employment” by keeping Clayton open. But in fact, New Mexico’s prisons are hard-pressed to find people who want to work in them. Even the state’s largest jail, the Metropolitan Detention Center outside Albuquerque, is facing dire understaffing.

“When people say, ‘Well we need jobs,’ what we need are community probation and parole officers and drug treatment specialists and therapists,” Donatelli said. “We don’t need prison guards. You know what we find now? People don’t want to work in prisons.”

It’s been one year since New Mexico took control of the prison in Grants. It could cost the state $99.6 million to rent it for 20 years.
Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight's criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, the environment and other issues at the Arizona Republic. His accountability reporting exposed...