*Editor’s note: This story was previously published with an omitted word. This version contains the correct phrasing: “The order required that prisoners released be no more than 30 days…”

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, New Mexico released hundreds of prisoners into parole early throughout the first years of the pandemic. But new statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate New Mexico’s COVID-19 death rate among prisoners and prison workers ranked high compared to other states.

In a recent federal report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) tallied prisoner and staff infections across the U.S. The numbers are part of an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on both state and federal prisons.

Between March 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021, 28 prisoners in New Mexico were reported as having died of a COVID-19-caused death or a death where COVID-19 was confirmed as a significant factor, according to DOJ statistics. All of those prisoners were male. In that same time frame, New Mexico reported a total of 3,716 COVID deaths statewide.

According to DOJ stats, New Mexico’s prison population hovered between 6,843 and 5,942 prisoners between the last day of February 2020 through the end of February 2021. The numbers don’t doesn’t include prisoners held in local jails.

With 28 COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico prisons during the DOJ’s measured time frame, New Mexico had 3.2 deaths per 1,000 prisoners in custody. That means the state tied with Michigan for the state with the highest COVID-19 death rate between March 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021, according to the data available to the DOJ.

However, DOJ data shows far more inmates died of COVID or COVID-complications in other state prisons across the U.S. For example, Texas topped the DOJ’s list with 255 COVID-related inmate deaths. California saw 219 deaths, Florida charted 213 and Pennsylvania saw 125.

The DOJ wasn’t able to present complete data on all states. A few states lacked reportable data. Still, the report shows that New Mexico faced significant challenges during the pandemic, and not just among inmates.

New Mexico had the highest COVID-19 infection rate among correctional staff, the report shows. Nearly two thirds of all staff tested positive for COVID-19 during the reporting period, according to the DOJ.

In April 2020, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order directing the New Mexico’s Corrections Department to release some prisoners early in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the state temporarily suspended some visits from visitors and inmate transfers.

The order required that prisoners released be no more than 30 days away from their scheduled release date (i.e. they had to serve most of their sentence), had a parole plan in place, and were not be a sex offender, convicted of a felony DWI, and not serving time for domestic abuse, assault on a peace officer, or a firearms enhancement. Under those conditions, New Mexico released more than 680 inmates on an expedited timeline between April 2020 and August 2022.

Lujan Grisham recently rescinded the pandemic-era executive order to release prisoners early. The order notes that the reason it was rescinded was because the COVID-19 issues have subsided.

Once vaccines became more widely available in early 2021, correctional facility staff and inmates where among the first prioritized groups in New Mexico to receive COVID-19 immunization. By the first third quarter of fiscal year 2021, New Mexico ranked in the top five states for COVID-19 vaccination rates among correctional staff and ranked 31st for vaccination rates among inmates, according to the New Mexico Corrections Department and the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. By August 2021, nearly 90% of inmates had been fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Corrections.


*Editor’s note: To compare COVID-19 death rates in prisons, the DOJ used two underlying population measures: the sum of persons in custody on February 29, 2020 and persons admitted each month from March 2020 to February 2021 and the rate per 100 days in prison custody. But New Mexico did not submit some data for 2020, meaning that the rate per 100 days in prison custody could not be calculated.