SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Legislators are considering a bill to give the New Mexico Corrections Department more oversight. The idea is to create an oversight board and ombudsman that could investigate complaints from inmates.

This isn’t a new idea though. Lawmakers considered a similar bill during last year’s 2021 regular session, but that bill died in committee. Now, the legislature seems to be moving forward with a refurbished version, House Bill 297.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D-Doña Ana), would create a board comprised of a wide range of people, including crime victims representatives and people representing corrections workers. The board would choose an ombudsman who could investigate complaints related to New Mexico’s prisons.

New Mexico prisons have recently come under fire for complaints such as a lawsuit that claimed New Mexico prisons didn’t give inmates necessary addiction medication. The prison system does already have an internal complaint process, but the new bill would allow people to make complaints against the Corrections Department without going through the department’s internal complaint process.

In considering the idea, legislators asked what sorts of issues might come to light via additional oversight: We’ve received “mail from those who were incarcerated in regard to either the food and nutrition or healthcare. So, do you envision this advisory board providing feedback and examining those kinds of issues?” Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Abq.) asked in a House Judiciary Committee meeting.

“One of the key components of this is really attempting to compel the Corrections Department to go to a rulemaking process. That would include things around calorie counts and the provision of nutrition as well as the provision of healthcare,” Cadena, the bill sponsor, replied. A key focus of the oversight board would be ensuring that the Corrections Department follows state and federal laws, Cadena added.

While additional oversight could help ensure accountability, it’s not clear if a board or ombudsman could directly change anything in the department, the Legislative Finance Committee suggests in an analysis. The initial version of the bill does not pose any consequences on the department for failure to comply with requirements, they note.

Still, the Legislative Finance Committee says that advocates and scholars have been advocating for an ombudsman to oversee the New Mexico Corrections Department for decades. And some other states, such as Michigan and New Jersey already have similar ombudsman offices.

Wednesday, February 22, the House Judiciary committee voted to move the idea forward. Still, the bill has to pass through more legislative scrutiny before an oversight board becomes a reality.