AFSCME Council 18

Saturday’s Incident Inside Prison Underscores Need for Legislature to Address Crisis of Vacancies at NM Corrections

For Immediate Release
Miles Conway 505-455-2853

Saturday’s Violent Incident Inside Prison Underscores Need for Legislature to Address Crisis of Vacancies at NM Corrections

NMCD in a catch-22: shutting down prison posts that enable safe family visits allows understaffed correctional officers to get needed rest, but has created a more violent prison population

Santa Fe, NM - On Saturday, February 6, just as nearly 100 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members were rallying at the state capitol building in support of increased funding to address dangerous understaffing inside New Mexico’s correctional facilities, a dangerous situation was developing at one of the state-run facilities.

Inmates became violent Saturday afternoon, and caused a critical incident, nearly causing officers to deploy gas and lethal force in order to regain order inside the prison.

AFSCME, who represents NM state correctional officers (COs) and support staff, understands fully the intent of the newly launched New Mexico Corrections Department program, “Operation Recovery and Staff Wellness,” aimed at giving COs much needed recovery time, but the reality is that the program has backfired in its first week.

Correctional officers’ primary goal is to keep conditions inside the prison system safe and calm. Elements of the new program, launched last week, involve shuttering special rehabilitation program posts and family visits one week per month so that officers can rest, and remain focused on critical security.

Current high vacancy rates are addressed by requiring officers work 72 hour work weeks, making adequate recovery time impossible. AFSCME believes that the new program is well intended, but represents a bandaid for a wound that can only be healed by hiring more officers across the state and increasing pay significantly to help stem the high rate of attrition plaguing the department.

AFSCME sees a direct link between Saturday’s incident and Governor Martinez’s policies affecting state employment. Officers are concerned that conditions will worsen if the GOP’s “feel good” bills become law, locking up more people up in prison without giving the department resources necessary to carry out these mandates.

“With money for corrections included in the current proposed budget, we are finally at the point where we can begin to address the issue with low pay and high turnover,” said AFSCME Council 18 Political Coordinator Josh Anderson. “Unfortunately, the Governor’s focus on increasing criminal penalties before addressing the challenges we face in corrections is putting the cart before the horse and could have us, once again, asking our COs to do more with less.”

Senator Michael Sanchez and Senator John Arthur Smith have taken what AFSCME believes is a responsible and reasonable approach to balance the budget, invest on public safety, and pass laws that will help New Mexicans, not grab headlines and play ‘cops and robbers’ politics with New Mexico public safety.

“These posts being shut down caused the prison population to become more agitated, as officers expected. It was a well intended effort to rest the officers, but resulted in the violent incident we saw Saturday,” said Rob Trombley, AFSCME New Mexico public safety coordinator. “On Saturday afternoon we witnessed inmates improvising armor and masks in preparation for combat with officers. It was a close call, and we have serious concerns moving forward, because conditions in the prison are ripe for trouble.”

At approximately 2 pm on Saturday, one officer was inside a prison area serving food to inmates. Inmates were already agitated due to recent notice that posts allowing them to have visitation with family and other programs were being shut down. Inmates begin hurling food trays. A call for assistance went out from the control room as the Officer serving lunch quickly retreated the area and a security door was locked.

A team of six officers responded and commanded the inmates to return to their cells and close their doors. It became necessary for officers to follow a protocol informing inmates that if they did not comply, gas and lethal force would be deployed.

The entire incident lasted only five minutes and nobody was injured. However, upon entering the inmate area, the response team found multiple doors unsecured and video later confirmed inmates were preparing to fight with officers by improvising masks and armor.

AFSCME has learned that there was another similar incident around the same time in another area of the prison, and had things gotten out of control between inmates and the first response team, that staffing was too thin inside the facility that day to allow quick deployment of a backup response team.

Short staffing is the root of the problem, and hiring more officers is badly needed in order to run the programs which actually rehabilitate the prisoners, and create as safe an environment as possible to protect the officers, inmates, and the public.

AFSCME members delivered over 900 petition signatures on Saturday with hundreds of testimonials from officers detailing the challenges they’re facing everyday.

The petition / comments are available online:

AFSCME Blog Post on Saturday Rally

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