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Jail, Inc.

Budget woes could force Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility to revisit a horrifying past

July 20, 2011, 2:00 am

Inmate Tyson Johnson, 27, ended his life by attaching this piece of blanket to a sprinkler fixture at Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility while it was being run by a private contractor.
Credits: Photo Courtesy Mariel Nanasi

The jail, however, was built on a different premise. 

People who have been involved in criminal justice issues in Santa Fe for years can’t help but laugh when they recall the expectations originally held for SFCADF. Built directly across from the state penitentiary, about 15 miles south of Santa Fe off of windswept Highway 14, the facility was originally expected to make a profit. 

In 1997, instead of settling for a facility designed to hold about 280 inmates, the average number at the existing jail, the county sprang for a 600-bed facility in order to capitalize on additional inmates.
“They were going to go make money on the backs of the misery of incarceration of Santa Fe citizens,” Donatelli says. “We [were] like, ‘You don’t need this; it’s going to be a disaster. The county shouldn’t be trying to make money through putting people in cages.’”

Such protests went unheard. 

“They were sold this bill of goods about how it was going to be a moneymaking enterprise,” Donatelli says, “and it’s been nothing but headaches ever since.”

A headache is exactly how Santa Fe County Commissioner Kathy Holian characterizes the jail problem today, calling the idea of its being profitable “a big joke.” 

“I’d have to ask some of the commissioners who were on the commission at that time: ‘What were you thinking?’” Holian says. 

History has borne out Donatelli’s argument. Even though its population is augmented by inmates from around the state, along with federal prisoners being held for the US Marshals Service, the jail currently operates at about three-quarters capacity. To add to what Donatelli calls the “albatross” that is the county’s predicament with the facility, the bond used to build it is a high-interest, 30-year bond that can’t be refinanced at a lower rate. More than half of the annual gross receipts tax the county raises specifically for the county corrections department goes to pay back $2.3 million of that debt per year. 

Last year, the jail’s medical services budget came to $2.9 million, and its total operations constitute the county’s single biggest budget item. The need to reduce that cost is a point belabored by county staff at every opportunity—including at a May community health meeting intended to address issues of patient care and labor disputes at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. 

At a Feb. 1 special session of the Board of County Commissioners, Santa Fe County Commissioner Robert Anaya lamented that the SFCADF “is killing us, to put it bluntly.”

Part of the problem, Romero says, is competition from other jurisdictions that also moved to capitalize on growing inmate populations by turning incarceration into a money-making enterprise. 

In 2008, the construction of the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton—a privately-operated prison overseen by the state Department of Corrections—started a domino effect that led to dramatic underuse of Santa Fe’s jail. 

First, the New Mexico Department of Corrections terminated a contract it had with the Santa Fe Facility to house approximately 140 inmates, shifting them to Clayton’s 625-bed facility. Next, the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which had contracted with the Santa Fe facility to house juvenile offenders, moved many juveniles to an Albuquerque facility. In Santa Fe, revenues dipped accordingly: While the jail brought in more than $9 million by housing inmates for other jurisdictions in fiscal year 2006, last year it made just $3.7 million.

County officials have considered trying to reverse that trend by bringing more inmates into the jail. Romero says that, to increase revenue by $1 million, she needs to bring in about 40 inmates—but that shifts other pieces of the puzzle, too, because she would have to increase staff accordingly. Right now, SFCADF has a staggering 82 frozen positions. In order to keep expenses down, Romero is forbidden to fill them. But there’s another problem: In Romero’s view, there just aren’t that many inmates to be had.

“I’m probably going to be able to bring in a few more from the US Marshals, and hopefully maybe from Bernalillo, but the idea that there’s a lot of adult inmates that we could bring in, it’s just not there,” she says. “When Clayton was built, those numbers went away. I can’t bring them back.” 

As corrections revenues—and opportunities for increasing them—continue to dwindle, other entities’ fiscal problems are also affecting SFCADF. Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center stopped paying about $280,000 to SFCADF for indigent inmates’ medical care this year after Santa Fe County decreased the hospital’s funding.

State budget woes affect the jail, too. Each year, the state pays SFCADF to house probation and parole offenders who are picked up on violations. In 2009, the state paid SFCADF $298,430 for housing those offenders; last fiscal year, it paid just $148,654, which is less than what it costs the facility to house them. 

New Mexico Corrections Department spokesman Shannon McReynolds tells SFR that the formula for determining reimbursement for probationer housing costs is set by the state Sentencing Commission; commission Chairman Tony Ortiz did not return a call for comment before press time.

It’s also unclear whether SFCADF’s rates for housing inmates are too steep for neighboring counties, which have fiscal challenges of their own. While SFCADF charges approximately $80 per inmate per day, San Juan County Adult Detention Center charges just $63. Various jurisdictions allegedly owe the county a combined total of about $2 million, which it has struggled to collect due to contract complications.

Escalating costs of prison health care aren’t exclusive to Santa Fe County or to New Mexico. The federal Department of Justice notes in its report to Congress on the FY 2012 federal prison budget that inmate medical costs in its facilities increased from approximately $310 million in 2004 to almost $500 million in 2010. 

But Santa Fe County—at least in some areas—incurs higher costs than other facilities.

For example, providing medical care currently costs SFCADF an average of $18.90 per inmate per day, but San Juan County Adult Detention Center spends between $10 and $13, according to its director, Tom Havel.

Staffing is the most expensive component of providing inmates’ medical care, and SFCADF’s staffing levels currently exceed standards set for the facility by the US Department of Justice in 2004. In Santa Fe, three part-time psychiatrists provide a total of more than 56 hours per week of coverage; the DOJ requires only 12 hours per week. San Juan doesn’t have an on-site psychiatrist, but offers nine hours per week of coverage by a psychologist.

The county estimates that SFCADF could reduce expenses by about $500,000 annually by reducing medical staff to DOJ minimums, but that only accounts for one-quarter of the total it is hoping to slash from the jail’s budget.

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