“I have to pick up my guitar once a day for 15, 20 minutes,” Joe Aiello says. “Having a constructive hobby—it’s very therapeutic for me.”
Aiello learned about the positive impact playing guitar can have during his time as a juvenile inmate in Santa Fe’s Youth Development Program. These days, Aiello, 26, and no longer incarcerated, teaches other kids behind bars guitar through Outside In, a nonprofit organization that partners with Santa Fe County to help jail inmates—particularly juvenile offenders—through art instruction and performances.
The program has made a tremendous impact on incarcerated youth, particularly those in for the long term.
“Kids who have not done well in school or fallen through all the various social safety nets, including their families—when these kids come in contact with the arts, it’s transformative,” Outside In Executive Director David Lescht says. “When they play a guitar, the transformative power is immediate. Same thing for art and dance. It opens up a part of their brain that leads to transformation and we see it from week to week. People on staff here have seen it with their own eyes.”
That’s why recent changes at the facility have Lescht and others concerned. As of Oct. 1, the state agency responsible for housing juvenile inmates throughout New Mexico—Children, Youth and Families Department—ended its contract with Santa Fe County, leaving 30 out of 53 total beds empty at the county’s underage lockup.
CYFD’s kids were long-term inmates who are now being moved to the recently reopened Camino Nuevo Detention Center in Albuquerque.
In order to fill the empty beds, Santa Fe agreed on Sept. 30 to take in pre-adjudicated juveniles—those who have not yet been sentenced—from six other counties, as far away as Colfax and Otero. Those kids are short-timers who may only be around for days or weeks before heading to court.
“Longevity is important,” Aiello says of the arts program. “The longer you’re around the same instructor, the more time you can invest in your guitar studies.”
Lescht says the change puts Outside In at a “disadvantage” but “we go with the flow, and if kids are there for only six months, we have to deal with it. Our program goes on.”
Nonetheless, other advocates, as well as officials, question the wisdom of renting out space to faraway counties.
Having kids so far away from home—Otero County is a four-hour drive from Santa Fe—is detrimental to a young inmate’s welfare, according to City of Santa Fe Juvenile Justice Planner Richard De Mella.
“It’s inexcusable,” De Mella says, noting that the city currently houses nine to 12 inmates at the Youth Development Program. “They need a connection with their family, especially kids. You’re looking at a kid who’s poor, has limited income and their family can’t afford to come visit. They feel isolated, and what the hell do they have to look forward to? It’s discouraging.”
Santa Fe County Corrections Director Annabelle Romero, who oversees both the adult and juvenile facilities, agrees with De Mella that distance has an adverse effect on juvenile offenders. “Overall, the issue that figures highest on anyone’s ability to reintegrate back into society and do well is their connection to their families and community,” Romero says.
Nevertheless, she says, the agreements with Mora, Taos, Otero, San Miguel, Torrance and Colfax counties are needed just to keep the lights on. According to Romero, housing juvenile inmates is particularly pricey due to the services the Youth Development Program offers. Now that CYFD has left, revenue from other counties is especially important.
“We’re not looking to make a profit,” Romero says. “We’re just trying to break even.”
And, County Commissioner Jack Sullivan says, keep Santa Fe’s incarcerated youth close to home. “We’ve tried to keep [the Youth Development Program] open, because it provides services to the youth in Santa Fe County. It’s harder because costs are skyrocketing,” Sullivan says.
According to contracts inspected by SFR, the per-bed charges for other counties’ inmates range from $154 for Otero, Colfax and San Miguel counties to $185 for Santa Fe County’s newest partner, Torrance County. Until CYFD removed its 30 juvenile inmates, it was paying Santa Fe County $250 per inmate, per day.
Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley says counties ideally should receive help from the state.
Otero County Manager Tim Smith agrees. Whereas in Torrance the problem is a lack of facilities, in Otero, the problem is overcrowding. Smith says he has contracts with a handful of other counties, but it is a huge burden economically when he has to ship kids off to facilities as far away as Farmington.
“It’s a screwy system,” Smith says. “I’m not trying to pass the buck, but it’s out of our hands. If we have to take them up to Farmington, it’s what we have to do. The state as a whole needs to address the issue.”