When I traveled to places like Valley State Prison for Women and the women’s section of the Los Angeles County Jail system (the nation’s largest), I saw, firsthand, what happens to prisoners and correctional employees alike when a system has spiraled so out of control it has begun to implode on itself. I saw cells designed for two women packed with eight bodies, women sleeping in corridors, and the rampant misery and aggression birthed by such inhumane conditions. I witnessed so many untreated mentally ill people that these environments felt more like Dickensian mental asylums than places designed to rehabilitate people and release them back to their communities.
While California’s chronic jail and prison overcrowding (at more than 200 percent in some prisons) and relentless prison expansion has resulted in an utter catastrophe that might soon force a federal takeover, New Mexico is currently experiencing a slight decrease in its prison population. Whereas California’s Legislature can’t seem to move forward coherently on any kind of prison reform or alternative sentencing, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s Task Force on Prison Reform released a comprehensive report earlier this year outlining numerous progressive, forward-thinking solutions to address the needs of women and men who end up in jail and prison.
And that’s great news. Unfortunately, the long-term predictions are still such that the New Mexico Corrections Department is preparing for substantial increases in both female and male prison populations in the years to come. All the while, New Mexico’s privatized prisons and prison services continue to generate controversy (and lawsuits), while its jails are rife with serious problems. A slate of recent (and forthcoming) lawsuits target numerous facilities for egregious abuses—most recently, against the Grant County Detention Center for employing guards who forced inmates into human cage fighting. In addition, the Department of Justice released a report in June that found the CCA-run Torrance County jail had the highest sexual victimization rate of female and male inmates in the country (four times the national average).
This week, a CCA prison guard, Anthony Shay Townes, was expected to go to trial in Albuquerque on 23 criminal charges, including rape, kidnapping and bribery/intimidation of numerous women incarcerated at Camino Nuevo Correctional Facility in Albuquerque. Townes is alleged to have committed the crimes last year and has been locked up on a $500,000 cash-only bail since October 2007. Incredibly, when Townes was interviewed by detectives in October, he stated that if the women who alleged multiple abuses had his DNA, “they probably took it out of the staff bathroom.” The facility was shut down in April and then reopened as a “high-needs” juvenile detention facility in September. Since Townes’ arrest, the New Mexico Corrections Department has instituted new policies, including the requirement that guards double up when working with fewer than three prisoners at a time, and that female guards should conduct inspections of women’s cells whenever possible.