Before inmates at the privately run Cibola County Correctional Center near Grants received face coverings last month, they had to sign on the dotted line.
"They made us sign a waiver stipulating that if we incur any damages or injuries or what have you due to wearing the mask, that we relinquish CoreCivic (the giant, for-profit prison operator) from all liability," one Cibola County inmate, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, told New Mexico In Depth. "And that we're personally volunteering to wear the mask. So, if you sign the waiver, then you receive the mask."
Family members of a second inmate, who also asked to be unnamed, described a nearly identical experience.
Inmates "have been told that unless they sign a release form they do not get a mask," the family said.
A spokesman for CoreCivic this week wrote in an email that the company had not required legal waivers in order for inmates to receive masks. However, he said in a follow-up message, the prison did circulate an "acknowledgement form" to inmates informing them about the masks' effectiveness—a practice the prison ended in early April for reasons the spokesman did not specify. It was not CoreCivic's intent for inmates to give up their rights to get face coverings, he wrote.
Those incarcerated at the 1,129-capacity detention center in tiny Milan, NM, didn't get much for their signatures, according to the first inmate.
The masks were fashioned from yellow prison clothing and "are almost impossible to breathe through," he said.
Together, the inmates' accounts offer perhaps the first glimpse inside a New Mexico private prison since the state's first coronavirus cases emerged on March 11. It comes as New Mexico officials launch a wide-scale testing regimen in state-run prisons and the beginnings of a long awaited public dialogue about COVID-19 behind the walls.
The mask situation is among several details the inmates shared with New Mexico In Depth about conditions inside the detention center as COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, continues to hit jails and prisons particularly hard.
Among the others: Prison staff are spraying bleach all over the inside of the detention center, including on windows, cell doors, even inside the microwave, leaving inmates enveloped in fumes with stinging eyes; congregate religious services have been canceled, while guards appear to be encouraging recreational gatherings by passing out board games such as Yahtzee and Risk. Prison staff are inconsistent with what information they share and seem deaf to inmates' collective request to be tested for COVID-19.
And the recent movie of the week screened on every television in the facility for inmates to watch: Contagion, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film that, with eerie precision, predicted several elements of the current pandemic.
The film, along with widespread uncertainty about whether the virus is lurking in the facility and other concerns, has agitated an already anxious atmosphere, the first inmate said.
"If the infection gets into this building, what are we supposed to do? Just sit here and wait for death to come to our door?" the inmate said in a solemn near-whisper. "And that has caused a lot of unrest, just the thought of that."
The virus has, indeed, touched the prison.
On April 30, the company learned that an employee at the Cibola County facility tested positive, according to a CoreCivic spokesman. The employee's last shift was April 12, he said, and other employees who had contact with the infected employee were directed to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.
And on Tuesday, a well-known criminal defense lawyer told the Albuquerque Journal that one of his clients, a 73-year-old woman, had tested positive for COVID-19 at the correctional center. It was not clear, according to the Journal story, where she may have contracted the virus.
Cibola County has accounted for 89 of the state's 5,212 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Health.
The prison, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque, houses detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US Marshals Service and the county.
Core Civic, one of the two largest private prison companies in the nation, operates two other facilities in nearby Grants and Estancia, in addition to the Cibola County Correctional Center.
That makes it a major player in New Mexico, which has consistently been rated as having one of the largest private prison footprints in the United States. Half the state's incarcerated population is in private detention centers, according to the most recent report from the nonpartisan Sentencing Project. That's the nation's highest percentage.
Management and Training Corporation runs the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral for ICE; state health officials this week said there's a burgeoning COVID-19 outbreak in the private prison, with 31 confirmed cases.
The mask situation
CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin would not say how many staff members have been tested at the Cibola County facility. However, he did confirm in a series of emails several elements of the inmates' accounts, while offering explanations for what's happening in the prison.
Regarding the waiver-for-mask arrangement in Cibola County, Gustin at first denied the claims. But in response to follow-up questions, he gave more nuanced answers.
"Initially, inmates and detainees were asked to sign an acknowledgment form related to the use of the masks," Gustin wrote. "The form was intended to make sure that anyone wearing a mask fully understands that they may not be preventative and that it's important to continue measures like social distancing and proper hygiene."
The form, he said, has since been converted into a fact sheet about face coverings, which is posted to the company's website.
"It was not the intent of the previous form to require inmates or detainees to relinquish all rights related to COVID-19," Gustin continued. "The use of the original form has been discontinued since April 10. Inmates and detainees are only required to initial documentation evidencing they were issued a mask."
Gustin declined to give NMID copies of the original form or the documentation CoreCivic now requires for inmates' signatures. Nor would he discuss how officers are being trained or instructed to talk with inmates about the signatures and masks.
CoreCivic's practice contrasts with New Mexico's state-run prisons—including the four operated by private companies for the state—where inmates aren't required to sign or initial any documents in order to receive a mask, Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison told NMID. A small group of inmates and staff have produced more than 8,000 masks for inmates, Harrison said, and are working on 8,000 more—so that each incarcerated person can have two.
Both Cibola County inmates who shared information with New Mexico In Depth said it was clear they would not receive face coverings unless they signed paperwork.
"I signed it," the first inmate said. "Some people were like, 'No, we won't be able to sue them if we catch it.' I don't personally care. I would rather live, not get sick and possibly live and sign it than possibly catch (the virus) and potentially die because I'm looking for a lawsuit. That doesn't seem too logical to me."
Many people locked up in the prison wear masks, the first inmate said. But correctional officers and medical staff wear face coverings inconsistently; they almost never wear gloves.
He has stopped taking vital medications because prison staff refuse to wear gloves when passing out pills, he said.
Testing and quarantines
Gustin, the CoreCivic spokesman, did not address the inmate's concerns about staff wearing PPE. He also would not comment on the inmates' collective request to be tested for the virus, instead referring questions about the request to the US Marshals Service.
Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman for the agency, also did not respond to questions about why staff refused the inmates' pleas—or whether any inmates inside the prison have been tested.
"They come in here and they tell us that there's no cases in the jail," the first inmate said. "How do we know? They haven't tested anybody. But the officers walk out of the building every day. I guess they take their temperatures on their way in."
In one email, Donahue said no US Marshals detainees being held in any New Mexico facilities had tested positive for the virus. She sent a follow-up email, clarifying that the agency had "received no reports of any US Marshals Service prisoners being held at the Cibola County Correctional Facility testing positive for COVID-19."
She declined to say why she had to clarify her first statement and whether US Marshals' inmates in other facilities in New Mexico had tested positive.
Neither spokesperson would comment on another of the first inmate's claims: that at least two units within the prison had been locked down in quarantine over fears about possible coronavirus cases.
The first inmate said people are brought into the facility from other jails and prisons around the state and placed in one of the two units. But instead of the 14-day quarantine period recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new arrivals are released into the general population after 48 hours.
Answering questions about quarantining portions of the facility, Gustin said, could "pose a security risk."
'Our eyes are burning'
The first inmate who spoke with NMID said he appreciates the staff's efforts to disinfect common and high-touch areas within the prison.
But it's an inconsistent project, the inmate said.
"It's not enough," he added. "Sometimes the staff come through and they'll spray this, but they won't spray that. They're spraying bleach, man. They'll open up the microwave and spray inside there and just leave it inside the microwave without wiping anything down. And people not thinking or paying attention or just not caring will go ahead and put their food in there and heat it up."
The inmate added that the windows are "streaked with bleach" from the inside, and no matter where one goes inside the facility, the fumes linger constantly.
"Once in a while they'll come in here and spray the tables and the handrails and miss the microwave and miss the phones," the inmate said. "It's kind of random, but we're sitting in here either way and our eyes are burning. We're kind of trapped in the unit while all the bleach evaporates. I'm not sure how healthy that is."
The second inmate's family confirmed that bleach fumes permeate the prison, making it difficult for people inside to sleep, eat and breathe. The family said they'd received reports that, when staff use something other than bleach, which they characterized as "infrequent," it is often diluted disinfectant that doesn't seem to clean very well.
A consistent theme among inmates who have spoken with New Mexico In Depth from jails and prisons around New Mexico has been a lack of soap. Like people outside the walls, inmates are told to wash their hands constantly.
But there's a difference: Often, people behind bars are given a tiny bar of soap meant to last a week.
The first inmate said that's about what he gets in Cibola County.
Once the soap runs out, the inmate said, "You can ask, but usually the response you'll get is, 'Well, they pass that out on Wednesdays,' or whatever. Frequently, I'll sleep until 10 o'clock or so, and if they come in before I wake up, then I don't hear them call out hygiene. That means I miss it."
Once a week, he said, inmates are allowed to purchase additional soap, toilet paper and paper towels—but only if they have money on their accounts.
Gustin of CoreCivic said the company uses "commercial cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants that are effective against the virus" to keep the facility clean.
Staff regularly disinfect all areas of the facility, he said, including the board games handed out for inmate recreation.
Gustin said social distancing is encouraged, and inmates are only allowed to congregate with those incarcerated in the same sections of the prison.
The first inmate who spoke with NMID disputed that account, saying inmates from different units can play board games, basketball, handball and other activities together. And he questioned why that would be permitted while religious gatherings have been suspended.
Gustin confirmed that numerous congregate activities continue, but religious services have been canceled.
"Detainees and inmates are always free to enjoy their religious beliefs, but in working with our government partners in accordance with CDC guidelines and recommendations, any activity that involves a gathering of individuals has been temporarily suspended in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Gustin wrote.
He also confirmed the screening of Contagion for inmates.
"While it was never the intent to create nervousness among those in our care, we didn't receive any notifications or grievances that would have alerted us to this issue," he wrote.
Peace inside a prison often depends upon inmates feeling a degree of trust in guards. If those locked up don't believe they're being given a complete picture about conditions, the vibe can get edgy.
The pandemic is testing that balance, the first inmate said.
"People get excited, and rumors spread like wildfire," he said. "Such is incarcerated life, where conflicts are, I don't know, they're…Tensions are beginning to run a little high, just because of the uncertainty of, No. 1, our health and, No. 2, the conditions: We've been making our grievances known, really to no avail—it's falling on deaf ears."