We shouldn’t have to publicly shame (if that’s possible) Rio Arriba County commissioners into taking action regarding conditions in the Rio Arriba County Detention Center, for which they are responsible. Yet, here we are, almost annually reminding them of their duties regarding the monstrosity in Tierra Amarilla.
We’re fortunate that many inmates in that institution found their voices (and pens) and brought to the public’s attention the poor conditions and treatment in our jail. Not only did a group of men write to us to inform us of what conditions are “inside” but even after alleged retribution and abuse, many wrote to us a second time.
We thank and laud them for their courage, knowing they will again face mistreatment by guards, staff and management.
New Mexico State Statutes govern county jails. The subsections of law are brief, clear and to the point; simple to understand, easy to facilitate. But our commissioners, regardless of which batch we get in every election cycle, refuse to address the jail, which sucks an inordinate amount of our budget.
The County budgets $4.7 million for the jail. Almost half that budget ($2.3 million) is for employee salaries, benefits and retirement. About $1.1 million of the whole budget is for health care. An additional $250,000 is budgeted for meals and another $600,000 is listed under contractor services.
One would assume spending that much on jail facilities and inmate care would be more than enough but we’d guess that $2.3 million isn’t paying anyone who missed out on medical school. In short, the management and staff are a large part of the problem and the County has always been redescent to correct personnel issues.
Let’s acknowledge up front jail is not a vacation. It’s not supposed to be fun and you shouldn’t enjoy being there. Most people who are in jail need to be there for our protection or because they are being punished for a crime for which they’ve been convicted. Others are there because they’ve been accused of a crime (not convicted) and cannot afford bail. That’s a different editorial altogether.
However, regardless of who is in the jail there are basic human needs that must be met, by law, to protect prisoners while they are under total control (the care of) the County.
Among those basic needs is to be safe. It is not clear from County correspondence whether the fire alarm system in the jail works. James Blaker who was in the jail in May reported guards locking prisoners in cells using padlocks becuasse the door mechanisms did not work correctly. A padlocked door and no fire alarm are ingredients for disaster.
It is clear from inmates’ original letter in August and the follow-up letter on page A7 this week that the County is not meeting these needs, violating civil rights and its general apathetic attitude puts the County at risk for more lawsuits.
Rio Arriba County commissioners are on the hook for these issues because New Mexico Statutes 33-3-4 states, “Each governing body of a county or municipality shall conduct an annual site visit to the jail or detention center under its jurisdiction to inspect the overall conditions at the facility. Following a site visit, an inspection report shall be presented at a regular meeting of the governing body.”
As is the norm for the Commission, no inspection has taken place this year. If it has, no report has been presented in a regular meeting.
New Mexico Statutes 33-3-5 states, “It shall be the duty of the sheriff, jail administrator or independent contractor of each jail of the several counties of this state to keep the jails of their respective counties clean and healthy, and they shall observe special care as to the personal cleanliness of all prisoners under their charge.”
No cleaning supplies, no disinfectants, no soap? When 20 prisoners are using one toilet, that can’t be healthy, nor sanitary. How can a broken toilet remain so for two years?
Another letter in our possession, which was not published because of length, cites the food in the jail, as well as medical care, both physical and mental. The food does not provide proper nourishment and there is not enough.
Again, it should not be a three star Michelin event but it must meet the basics.
New Mexico Statutes 33-3-6 states, “The sheriffs, jail administrators or independent contractors of each county in the state shall supply with food the prisoners in their jails, and at all times all food so furnished shall be of a good and wholesome quality and sufficient in quantity for the proper maintenance of life.”
The law is clear. The County’s responsibilities are clear. The problems are clear.
Most importantly, the answer is clear. County commissioners must address the squalid conditions, irresponsible and vindictive personnel, poor management and absent or inadequate training in their jail.