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Most New Mexico county jails are understaffed; some are overfull

A photo taken in December 1941 of an unnamed sheriff’s deputy in front of the Taos County Jail. Taos County opened a new facility in 2011. Irving Rusinow / Wikimedia Commons
Fewer corrections officers mean counties are competing with each other (and state and private prisons too) for the same pool of people

Staff vacancy rates are 20% or greater at more than half of New Mexico’s county-run jails, even as some facilities report having more inmates than beds.

Katherine Crociata, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Association of Counties, told lawmakers last week that the situation required the legislature’s help to hire more staff.

“Our main concern is safety, first and foremost, of our detention officers,” Crociata said. “Right now, we have a number of facilities that are quite honestly very unsafe due to vacancy rates.”

The New Mexico Association of Counties is a nonprofit organization that lobbies for all 33 county governments and manages their insurance polices.

Even though New Mexico’s jailed population is smaller than its historic highs, three facilities reported the number of inmates exceeded their capacities in June this year, said Grace Philips, general counsel for the association.

The New Mexico Association of Counties Nov. 20, 2023 presentation to lawmakers included the detention staff vacancies of 25 county-run jails in June 2023. (Courtesy New Mexico Association of Counties)

During that period, Quay and Valencia County jails reported being at 102% of capacity, while Otero County was at 101%.

“I would say 80% is as full as you want to be, to safely operate,” Phillips said, noting jails need empty beds to move people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, or for the safety of guards and other people inside.

A compounding issue is the continued high rates of understaffing at county jails, she said.

According to a survey of counties in late October, 15 county jails had staff vacancy rates higher than 20%. Quay and McKinley jails have some of the largest gaps, with only half of their available staff positions filled.

More than half of New Mexico’s county-run jails has a 20% or greater staff vacancy rate.

Philips told lawmakers that vacancy rates are often not decreasing, but shifting from one entity to another since county jails compete with state and private prisons to hire corrections officers.

“We need to grow the pool,” she said. “We’re grabbing them from each other, whether it’s county from county, or county to the state, that’s an issue.”

Crociata requested lawmakers make an appropriation of $10 million for Detention and Corrections Workforce Capacity Building Fund in 2024. The fund, established in the 2023 session, will give grants to counties and state prisons to increase pay, and recruit and retain corrections staff.

The New Mexico Association of Counties Nov. 20, 2023 presentation to lawmakers included the capacity rates of 25 county-run jails in June 2023. (Courtesy New Mexico Association of Counties)

Another ask for 2024 is a “narrowly tailored” return-to-work bill, but only for corrections officers who had been retired for at least three months, Crociata said.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Elmer Chavez, the president of Local 3422, which covers New Mexico State Corrections officers, deferred comment for another time, and said “this was the first he was hearing of this.”

Three return-to-work bills failed in the 2023 session.

One was House Bill 64, which would create a “return-to-work” program for “public safety retirees,” such as police officers, firefighters, corrections workers and others. Lawmakers tabled the bill in the Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

The other was House Bill 65, which would allow retired public employees to return to work, without suspending retirement benefits. The proposal never made it to a committee. A third was House Bill 344, which was limited to retired correction officers, and did not make it before its second assigned committee.

Rep. Alan Martinez (R-Rio Rancho) said he supported a return-to-work bill for corrections officers, saying it may be the “perfect solution.”

Crociata said the New Mexico Association of Counties worked with union leaders before the 2023 session, saying the bill tried to address concerns about double-dipping in early retirement, requiring retirees to return to entry-level positions and ensuring the bill had an expiration date.

“We hope to continue the conversation with them,” she said.

Martinez encouraged the New Mexico Association of Counties to get union support for any correction officer return-to-work bill in the upcoming session.

Sen. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque) said lawmakers need to consider raising starting pay for corrections officers, noting that in 2019, a $18-an-hour salary was more than double the past minimum wage. And while minimum wage was raised statewide, he said, corrections officers’ pay rose more slowly.

“It’s very, very difficult to hire corrections officers, incredibly difficult, so we have to get creative in how we incentivize people to work in the county jails,” Maestas said.

Source NM is an independent, nonprofit news organization that shines a light on governments, policies and public officials.

Starting wages for corrections officers in New Mexico county-run jails. (Courtesy of New Mexico Association of Counties)