13 Investigates: The costly crisis behind bars

A five-month KRQE News 13 Investigation


SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) — There’s trouble brewing behind prison walls. It’s dangerous, disturbing and costly.

A five-month KRQE News 13 investigation finds New Mexico’s prison system in the danger zone. The issue relates to under staffing. Department of Correction’s records show state officials have failed to hire enough Correctional Officers to control inmates or keep our prisons and the public safe. Over the last two years, taxpayers have shelled out tens of millions of dollars to compensate for inadequate staffing at all New Mexico prison facilities across the state.

“We’re just a time bomb waiting to happen and it needs to be addressed,” says State Senator Howie Morales.

State Senator Sander Rue told KRQE News 13, “It is a terrible situation and the harm is, eventually, something’s going to happen. Something’s going to snap.”

According to the American Correctional Association, which accredits prison facilities, Correctional Officer vacancy rates in prison facilities should “…not exceed 10 percent for any 18-month period.” In New Mexico, only two of the state’s 11 prison facilities come even close to the national standard.

State V. Private Vacancies
State V. Private Vacancies

For example, the maximum security State Penitentiary in Santa Fe is so short-staffed that routinely as many as 29 percent of the Correctional Officer positions there are vacant.

In December, at the medium security Central Prison in Los Lunas, 34 percent of the Correctional Officer positions were vacant which is more than three times the national standard.

In July last year, more than half of the Correctional Officer jobs at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants went unfilled.

At the State Prison in Roswell last December, Correctional Officer vacancies reached 58 percent.

In July 2015, a whopping 70 percent of the Correctional Officer positions were vacant at the State Prison facility in Springer.

Newly named Correction’s Cabinet Secretary David Jablonski says these C.O. vacancy rates are “absolutely” unacceptable.

“These are minimum standards to ensure the safety and security and efficient operation of our prisons,” said Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli.

Donatelli led the 1980 Riot Defense Team. He is considered an expert on prison reform issues.

“If these standards aren’t met people are going to get hurt. It’s just that simple,” Donatelli said. “If 70 percent of the police officers in Albuquerque didn’t show up one day what would they think would happen? They’re here for a reason. This is supposed to be what we need to ensure reasonable safety and security in the community.”

New Mexico’s privately owned prisons don’t fare any better. In fact, private prisons must pay significant penalties if they fail to maintain minimum staffing levels.

Penalties paid by private facilities.

Over the last two years, the Lea County Correctional Facility (GEO Group, Inc.) in Hobbs has shelled out $871,918 in penalties for not hiring the required number of security officers.

Since 2015, the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Facility (Core Civic, Inc.) in Grants has paid $546,405 in monthly staffing penalties.

Since 2012, the five private prisons in New Mexico have paid the state a total of $5,674,848 for failure to maintain required staffing levels.

“All (five private prisons) have been penalized at some point during the fiscal year for lack of staffing,” said Correction’s Secretary Jablonski.

The failure to hire adequate security staff is having a major impact on the Correction’s Department’s budget. In order to maintain proper security at state prisons, minimum staffing levels are required. To compensate for all the vacant Correctional Officer positions, existing staff must fill those positions.

NMCD Overtime Expenses
NMCD Overtime Expenses

KRQE News 13’s investigation finds, since 2015, Correctional Officer overtime at state prisons has cost taxpayers $31,616,074. Many of the state’s Correctional Officers are required to work 16 hour days, every day. Some C.O.’s have been ordered to work 24-hour shifts.

Overtime pay by month and pay period.

“Understaffing was a significant cause of the riot,” Mark Donatelli says. “It was very easy for the prisoners to take over the entire prison with so few Correctional Officers on duty.”

Rob Trombley who is the Public Safety Coordinator for AFSCME Council 18, says the job of a Correction’s Officer is a thankless job.

“It’s long hours. Lots of overtime. It’s a very dangerous job,” Trombley said. “They’re responsible for the worst of the worst in the state. The folks that kill cops, the folks that hurt people, rob your house, those are the folks that are in prison.”

Understaffed and overworked prison security is a recipe for disaster. Case in point? The Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa. In September 1999, during an uprising there, inmates ambushed Officer Ralph Garcia and stabbed him to death. Last year an officer was stabbed by an inmate at the private prison in Clayton. In October an officer was attacked and suffered an eye injury at another state prison facility. The list of escapes, assaults and injuries goes on and on.

“You’re risking your life pretty much. Anything can happen at any time,” says Lee Ortega who is the AFSCME Local 3422 State President.

“It’s not a safe place. The public isn’t safe. The prison system is not safe. That staff is not safe and neither are the inmates,” says one long time C.O. working at Central Prison in Los Lunas.

Another Central Prison Correctional Officer comments, “It gets scary. Scary knowing you might not make it home to your family that night.”

So why is it so hard to find people willing to work in a prison? For starters, it’s one of the lowest paying public safety jobs in New Mexico. In fact, fitness trainers, garbage collectors, even estheticians earn more than trained and certified Correction’s Officers.

“They’re competing with McDonald’s, Burger King and Wal-Mart for jobs,” says AFSCME’s Rob Trombley. “You can go work at McDonald’s, you’re going to deal with the public, they’re not violent for the same pay, almost, as you could work in state corrections,” Trombley said.

State Senator Sander Rue says, “If I was a Correction’s Officer in one of those facilities I wouldn’t want to go to work. I wouldn’t want to put myself in that facility in harm’s way like that.”

“We’re putting people’s lives at risk on a daily basis,” State Senator Howie Morales says. “We shouldn’t have to wait for a tragedy to take place, a life to be lost or a riot to happen for us to take action.”

But providing better pay and working conditions for state Correctional Officers is a hard sell in the legislature.

“Out of sight out of mind,” Rob Trombley said. “They want to catch the bad guys. They want to prosecute them. But, I believe folks think that they just go away after that. And that’s the job of the Correctional Officer, out of sight out of mind.”

Correction’s Secretary David Jablonski says he will make this issue a number one priority. “I think it’s something that I’m going to have to address as the leader of this department and we’re going to do everything we can to get on those vacancy numbers. They’re just too high and unacceptable,” Secretary Jablonski says.

Prison reform expert Donatelli says, “Having done this since the 70s I see that people only pay attention when Correctional Officers are hurt, prisoners are killed, or people escape and hurt people in the community. We shouldn’t have to wait for those incidents to address this problem.”

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