Guards lead a few different groups of orange-jumpsuit-clad prisoners, some on their way to a courtroom, through the sterile hallways of the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility during SFR’s visit last Thursday—the first since before the pandemic began. On the second floor, new guards sit in a classroom, taking in a training session on use of force.
It’s clear walking around the jail that the inmate population is well below capacity, a trend that set in nearly two years ago when COVID-19 gripped New Mexico.
Several cell blocks, including two pods dedicated to newly-booked prisoners and those who must quarantine, either sit empty or house very few people.
After booking, inmates are tested for COVID-19 twice over 11 days before they can join the general population. To date, 145 prisoners have tested positive, along with 64 staff members, according to county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart.
Three-hundred-five people were jailed there last week—in a building that opened amid a nationwide jail and prison boom in 1998 with a design capacity of 612. (The county took over operations in 2005.)
Joint efforts within the criminal justice system led to a reduction in county jail populations across the state by mid-2020. That year, the population of the Santa Fe County jail was 446 on March 13, two days after the state recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus. By late May, it had dropped to 325, according to data collected by the New Mexico Association of Counties.
Evidence that COVID-19 has changed the jail is everywhere.
The decline in population has been a “saving grace” in keeping operations “stable” despite significant understaffing, Warden Derek Williams says. He’s running an overall staff vacancy rate of 38%. The jail budgets for 79 detention officers but employs just 41, along with 25 ranked officers. Williams estimates nursing is about 50% short.
Thursday’s visit to the jail, which holds local, state and federal inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial, marked the first time Williams has spoken with SFR since March 2020, despite efforts to interview him for numerous stories.
The warden, who worked for the Penitentiary of New Mexico before becoming Santa Fe’s jail head in December 2016, along with several staff provided a tour to SFR. Williams’ responses have been edited for clarity and length.
SFR: Has the relatively transient nature of the jail population made fighting COVID more challenging?
Derek Williams: For sure. Sanitation is always difficult because in prison, those guys are stabilized. They’ve already been through jail waiting to be adjudicated, usually for months, maybe a year…Here, they’re coming fresh off the street. It’s scary sometimes to see some of the—if you could see some of the people that come in, it’s an eye-opener, I’ll tell you…I’ve been to almost every facility and I could say this is probably one of the cleanest places, but it’s not easy because when they’re coming in and they don’t have clean practices already and they have terrible hygiene and open wounds from the injections, it’s tough. It’s a constant challenge.
Visitation has been suspended for the entirety of the pandemic, is that right?
We initially suspended on-site visits just because we were cutting down on any kind of public access, but it really didn’t affect much because we have video visits and for 90% of our population, it’s easier for them. Families will be in their living room on their phone doing a video chat with the inmate. The only people really coming on site are usually attorneys, and it’s usually when they’re doing psychiatric or competency evaluations. For most everything else they’re doing some type of video or phone call…The reason I think a lot of people like it is because they’re not taking off work, driving down here, gas, waiting in line. Every housing unit has a kiosk, so inmates can just get messages on there and set up their video visits. In the event the family is indigent [and can’t afford to purchase minutes], they can come on site and we’ll take them upstairs and there’s a booth where they can do a video visit for free.
What challenges are you having in hiring new employees?
Since COVID, we’ve had a significant decline in people actually putting in for jobs. When we have a testing date, nine times out of 10 maybe a third of the people that applied will show up for testing. I’m not sure if that’s them just applying to try and maintain unemployment, or if they’re still living off savings and stimulus checks and they’re not ready to come back. I don’t know. Corrections is a very competitive industry. We always compete with the Department of Corrections because the penitentiary is across the street, and usually MDC [the Bernalillo County jail] in Albuquerque. Those are usually our two biggest competitors because everyone kind of lives around those areas…Even with better benefits and increased salaries, we’re still not getting people applying for jobs…I’m hoping the next three or four months, now that the holidays have passed, people will start needing money again and want jobs. (Note: The starting wage is $19 per hour.)
What criteria do you consider when hiring detention officers?
Basically, they just have to be of age and have a high school diploma or GED and a clean record. We run a background check on them. They have to be in some kind of decent physical shape because we’ll run them through a brief academy and there is physical agility during that academy, but it’s not like boot camp. It’s basically just to make sure that if there’s an emergency on one side of the facility, they’re healthy enough to get down there, render aid and get back to their location.
How has understaffing impacted operations here?
When it comes to emergency response, security protocols or just doing simple welfare checks, we still are pretty stable because we’ve been able to cut our population down almost in half, so that’s been our saving grace…We’re down on case management, too, but I don’t worry about that as much as medical and security, because I can have staff from different departments kind of jump in and help out with that sometimes.
Do you expect the county vaccine mandate for employees will have a significant impact on staffing?
(Note: The county allowed employees to submit religious or medical exemptions in November and the human resources department is reviewing those requests, according to Hart, the spokeswoman. The jail has 110 vaccinated employees and 19 unvaccinated.) It’s still kind of early to see exactly what it’s going to look like at the end but we have definitely lost a few people. I don’t know what’s to come with the rest.