The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) on the far west side of Albuquerque has seen a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases this month. Between Oct. 12-15, the jail reported 139 new cases.
In response, public defenders are calling for police to cite people rather than arrest them when possible. MDC bookings show that over the past week, dozens of people have been jailed for minor, nonviolent crimes like possession of a controlled substance, driving with a revoked license and criminal trespassing.
Trespassing is a charge often leveled against unhoused people, as the Daily Lobo previously reported in July.
On June 17, for example, an officer patrolling a bike path found a woman “asleep in the bushes” and recognized the woman from previous encounters because she had been cited and arrested multiple times for trespassing in that area. The officer told the woman that she wasn’t allowed on the bike path and arrested her.
Lalita Moskowitz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico who represents incarcerated people, said that she sees the outbreak and others like it in jails and prisons across the state as a failure on the part of elected officials.
“These are members of our community who are always neglected and sort of always forgotten about, even in normal times,” Moskowitz said. “We’re seeing whose lives are a priority to our leaders, honestly. We know that these are vulnerable communities who are apparently not important enough to our leaders to take this seriously.”
Moskowitz called for specific law enforcement procedure changes to diminish the COVID-19 risk in jails and among other vulnerable communities.
“We keep hearing from the governor in her press conferences that we need to be wary, to be keeping up with the safety practices. What we are not hearing from our leadership is, you know, telling police departments, telling cities, telling counties to be making changes and to not be doing these unnecessary arrests,” Moskowitz said. “We’re really just getting this sort of absence of concern for incarcerated folks and for the really vulnerable people that these kinds of arrests target.”
In response to a request for comment, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s press secretary Nora Sackett said that while the state government has the same concerns as Moskowitz and other advocates, it’s essentially outside of their control.
“Certainly the state administration shares the extreme frustration of the public defenders you spoke to — and, of course, the extremely concerning public health situation,” Sackett wrote in an email. “The governor does not control the municipal police department or county sheriff’s office. Complaints about the lower-level arrests you describe being carried out by those agencies are best directed at the executives who oversee them.”
Meanwhile, Albuquerque city attorney Esteban Aguilar said that since 2017, the Albuquerque Police Department has had a policy of citing rather than arresting people for non-violent, non-DWI misdemeanor offenses. Aguilar claimed APD continues to follow that policy.
As of the publication of this article, a city spokesperson hadn’t responded to a follow-up email from the Daily Lobo that pointed out arrests that contradict Aguilar’s claim.
Get content from The Daily Lobo delivered to your inbox
APD didn’t respond to a request for comment as of publication.
Jennifer Burrill, the vice president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said her organization has been warning of COVID-19 outbreaks at county jails since the pandemic began.
“Jails in counties across the state are places where people are confined in close quarters and have little access to personal hygiene supplies, let alone cleaning supplies to help protect themselves from the coronavirus,” Burrill said. “Inmates have no control over who they are housed with and often share a bathroom and dining room with hundreds of other inmates who may or may not be carriers of the coronavirus.”
Jails present a unique public health challenge that’s different from prisons, according to Burrill. People are often jailed for minor crimes and then quickly released, increasing the potential for other inmates and MDC employees to be exposed to the virus.
Burrill emphasized that community investment should be a priority.
“Our elected officials should look at strategies to reserve incarceration for only those people charged with serious violent offenses. Directing food, housing, employment, addiction and mental health resources to neighbors and communities is far more cost effective than incarceration,” Burrill said.
The New Mexico Department of Health reported 191 new COVID-19 cases in Bernalillo County on Saturday, Oct. 17, which included the cases reported at the MDC.
According to MDC spokesperson Julia Rivera, the jail recorded 62 new cases among inmates on Saturday — making up roughly a third of the new cases in the county. As of Saturday, MDC had a total of 333 active cases among inmates, with 45 cases among staff.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs