SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Across the state, correctional facilities are experiencing staff shortages, with some facilities seeing over 100 officer vacancies, according to a recent report by a legislative committee. On top of that, the report shows an increase in drug use among inmates.

In New Mexico, there are 10 correctional facilities located throughout the state. Most are run by the state, but two are privately operated. And according to the latest report by the state’s budget-focused Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), around 30% of staff positions at those facilities were unfilled from July 2021 to July 2022.

Prison vacancies

The facility with the highest vacancy rate was the Penitentiary of New Mexico, just south of Santa Fe. The LFC reports that they had an average of about 100 unfilled positions during the last fiscal year.

Other facilities also had low staffing levels. And as a result, they had to reduce the prison population. Last spring, for example, the state’s Corrections Department reduced the number of inmates at Guadalupe County Correctional Facility to less than half capacity, the LFC reports.

Over the last few years, New Mexico’s prisoner population has also been on the decline. KRQE News 13 previously reported that there’s a range of reasons why the number of incarcerated people has been dropping. The state’s Sentencing Commission previously told state legislators that increased use of diversion programs, changes in how criminals are sentenced, COVID-19, and criminal justice reform have likely impacted the number of people being sent to prison in the state.

Still, even with the number of inmates down, the state is still looking to boost the number of staff in prisons as well as the number of probation and parole officers in the state. The Corrections Department attributes vacancies in the number of probation and parole officers to retirements as well as people moving to agencies with “significantly higher salaries” such as the Albuquerque Police Department.

County jails

It’s not only state-level prisons that are seeing vacancies. Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico Counties told state legislators from the Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee that county jails are also seeing unfilled positions as the number of detainees in some county jails has risen, in part because people are being required to stay in jail longer.

“There are more people in custody that are charged with a felony, proportionally, than there were before,” in Bernalillo, Curry, Dona Ana, Eddy, San Juan, San Miguel, and Rio Arriba Counties, Philips told legislators. “That’s probably, from a policy perspective, a good thing.” And there are more people being charged with violent offenses in those counties in recent years, according to Philips and the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.

Beyond those types of charges, there are also a large number of people in custody of county jails due to probation violations, Philips says.

“One of the issues I think we really need to think through is probation violators,” Philips says. “Because they are a category of folks who get booked in and will stay a long time.”

With the recent rise in county jail populations comes potential challenges. Philips says some counties don’t have enough capacity for inmates even when the state, as a whole, does have beds open. In addition, low staff levels might lead to safety concerns.

“Capacity, and how many people you can safely hold, depends also on how many staff you have,” Philips says. As of the latest data from May of this year, the statewide county jail system is at around 950 people short. As of August of 2022, Bernalillo County detention facilities alone had a shortage of 238 staff, according to Philips.

Drug use also a challenge

As staffing vacancies in New Mexico’s prisons and jails rise, drug use among prison inmates has also been on the rise, LFC data shows. But they do not suggest a link between staffing and inmate drug use.

Over the last three years, Correction Department inmate drug use had been on the decline, according to the results from randomly-administered drug tests. But in fiscal year 2022, drug use “rose significantly” compared with the year before, according to the LFC.

One spot of good news in the LFC’s report is that the percentage of released prisoners that end up back in prison within three years has decreased recently. In fiscal year 2021, 42% of released prisoners ended up back in prison. But during the most recent fiscal year, that dropped by 5%.

No easy solutions

Wednesday, state legislators from the Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee considered issues surrounding New Mexico’s prisons. In addition to considering ways to boost staffing, they also heard opinions on how to balance the cost of running prisons with ongoing public concerns of a perceived increase in crime in New Mexico.

For example, in the past, jails with too many inmates and not enough staff could transfer some staff to vacant beds in other jails. But Philips from the New Mexico Counties says this doesn’t work when jails system-wide have staff shortages. So one thing jails have tried is higher pay.

“We’ve seen a lot of counties raise the salaries,” Philips said. “We’ve seen counties increase benefits.”

But the state and local governments already pay a “tremendous amount” of money to operate prisons and detention facilities. “The last time we did a budget study, we learned that on-average, one out of every three County General Fund dollars goes to detention operations,” Philips told legislators.

Some counties spend even more. Otero County, for example, spent over $15 million on detention operations in fiscal year 2022, data from the New Mexico Counties shows. That’s nearly three quarters of the county’s entire general use fund.