As the coronavirus established a foothold in southern New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility in mid-May, state officials quietly moved 39 inmates out of the massive complex near the Texas border to another prison near Santa Fe.
The inmates shared something in common: None was a sex offender.
In the days before the 39 departed the massive correctional complex where New Mexico’s only sex offender treatment program is housed, officials were still transferring sex offenders from other state prisons into Otero. It was a routine practice they had yet to stop, even though more than a dozen COVID-19 cases had already emerged elsewhere in the prison.
Six weeks later, 434 inmates — or 80% — have the virus, within a prison population that’s now entirely composed of people who, at one time or another, were convicted of a state sex offense.
Three have died. Eight more lie ill at University Hospital in El Paso.
One of New Mexico’s most crowded prisons, Otero is the only state lockup with more than one COVID-19 case. And yet no prisoner from the facility has been released early under an executive order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 6 because sex offenders are not eligible.
Prisoners from the state’s 10 other facilities have gotten out, however, documents New Mexico In Depth obtained through a public records request show.
The revelations come through more than a week of reporting by New Mexico In Depth, and confirmation from Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison.
The timeline of inmate transfers as the virus crept into the prison is “really concerning,” said Lalita Moskowitz, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
“It indicates that Corrections knew that there was likely to be an outbreak or that there was some danger or risk to people housed in that facility,” Moskowitz said. “And they made a very clear decision about who in that facility was worth saving during a pandemic, and did so earlier than they were showing any sort of concern to the public.”
State officials didn’t seek to create a sex-offender-only prison purposely by sending the 39 inmates to Santa Fe, Harrison said. Rather, they did it “for COVID reasons,” he said, adding that they had been housed in a separate area of the Otero prison, away from the sex offenders.
“It wasn’t a specific policy change or big decision to make Otero the only sex-offender-only prison,” he said. “After that first inmate tested positive, we needed space to create a quarantine unit.”
As of Thursday, there had been no discussion in the Lujan Grisham administration about revisiting the criteria in the executive order on early release, including the provision excluding sex offenders, Harrison told NMID.
That’s despite the outbreak in Otero County.