Jail assessment lists multiple deficiencies

CNJ file photo The Curry County jail has numerous security concerns — including too few detention officers and an “abysmal physical plant design” — according to a security risk assessment conducted by the New Mexico Association of Counties.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Structural deficiencies, outdated policies and procedures and staffing issues are among concerns listed in an August assessment of the Curry County Adult Detention Center.

Manuel Romero, a detention consultant with the New Mexico Association of Counties, described an “abysmal physical plant design that in large part has and will continue to contribute to security problems and security breaches.”

He recommended the county immediately address staffing issues, obtain an architectural security assessment and develop an action plan for improvement.

Concerns cited for the primary jail facility include:

• drop ceilings with plaster tiles;

• separation walls lacking mortar filling;

• lack of steel barriers around plumbing;

• doors constructed of commercial-grade instead of security-grade materials;

• lack of camera surveillance in the visiting booths and laundry room;

• lack of detention officers and inmate supervision;

• outdated policies, including facility emergency plans;

• inmate accountability procedures.

The jail’s annex, which Romero noted was a commercial building converted for use as a detention facility, also has structural issues making it incompatible with inmate housing, he reported. He described the building’s facade as a vulnerable, “tile or brick material that can be easily penetrated.” He also noted lack of exterior lighting at the annex and full exposure to city streets with no barriers.

The assessment was conducted by Romero at the request of Curry County following an Aug. 24 escape of eight violent inmates from the jail. Two of those inmates, including a convicted killer, remain at large.

County officials made the jail report public last week after months of refusing. Officials at first cited “attorney-client privilege” as the reason for withholding the document. In more recent weeks, some have said they are concerned about revealing security issues outlined in the report.

The report was released Wednesday after the Clovis News Journal threatened legal action against the county for withholding it in violation of the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

County officials say many of the issues highlighted in the assessment have been corrected since the escape. Other issues are still being addressed. Citing security reasons, officials have declined to be more specific in some areas.

County Commissioner Pete Hulder said the jail is secure, though it could use improvements.

“The jail is secure,” he wrote in an e-mail to the CNJ. “If it were not, the facility would not be used to house prisoners. The safety of both staff and inmates is paramount to the county.”

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The assessment acknowledges Curry County’s detention center suffers the same “ills” of many other detention centers in terms of staff shortages, overcrowding, physical facility problems and operational issues. It also compliments Interim Administrator Audrey Barriga and her staff for working diligently to address many issues.

But imperative to correcting the problems, Romero wrote in the report, are substantial resources, hard work and strict adherence to generally accepted correctional practices, policies and procedures.

County Commissioner Robert Sandoval, a member of a county committee that evaluates jail issues and makes recommendations to the commission, said improving the jail and correcting the problems is a priority for the county.

“We’re working on the issues as hard and as fast as we can,” he said.

“We’re looking at it with the attitude that we didn’t cause this problem, our county manager didn’t cause this problem, we inherited it and we’re doing the best that we can with what we can.”

Romero noted in his assessment he spent two days at the facility conducting interviews and inspecting the structure in addition to reviewing staffing reports, officer discipline reports, architectural plans, policies and procedures and other documentation.

Low staffing levels were a significant problem for the jail, according to Romero, who said even if fully staffed with its 33 allocated officer positions, the facility would still be “substantially understaffed and incapable of providing adequate inmate supervision.”

A typical shift at the time of the assessment consisted of six to seven detention officers, Romero noted, making it difficult if not impossible to monitor inmates and to conduct cell searches, security checks and inmate counts on a regular and consistent basis.

Approximately 50 percent of the staff at the time of the report had less than one year’s experience, Romero noted, and the facility had dismissed 33 employees in a little more than two-year period. Four of those were dismissed for trafficking drugs at the facility in the weeks leading up to the assessment, he said.

Since the assessment, dated Sept. 1, officials have reported news of improvements that include:

• installation of flood lights around the facility;

• removal of trees around the facility;

• the repair of cell doors inside the facility;

• and approval of a contract for a surveillance system with 55 new cameras, which will be installed in coming months.

Additionally, officials have said policies and procedures have been reviewed and updated, detention officer positions have been added with all but three vacancies filled, the sheriff’s department has begun conducting random searches and security checks with the aid of a narcotics dog, and an architect has been hired to review the design of the building.

Fast facts:

• The Curry County Detention Center was built in 1993 with $5 million in funds drawn from a community bond. It replaced the jail on the top floor of the county courthouse, which was operated by the sheriff and only authorized to hold 46 inmates.

• CCDC’s main facility is designed for a maximum of 208 inmates. The annex, which houses all adult female inmates, has a capacity of 54. The main facility had 206 inmates and the annex had 44 inmates when Romero assessed the facility.

• Eight male inmates, including a convicted killer and an accused killer, escaped from the jail on Aug. 24. Officials said they stole a key to a plumbing shaft, climbed pipes and cut through the roof with makeshift tools. Two of the escapees remain at large: Edward Salas, 21, a convicted child killer, and Louis Chavez, 18, accused of burglary, larceny and extreme cruelty to animals.