Otero County may seek a private contractor to run the Otero County Detention Center, a facility suffering from a critical staffing shortage.
Data from New Mexico Counties showed the facility was one of two county jails with a 50% staff vacancy rate. In May the facility in Otero County had a reported 22 vacant positions. By August the number of empty positions was reported at 32, according to data from New Mexico Counties.
Grace Philips with New Mexico Counties said detention center jobs are challenging, and hiring in an atmosphere of low unemployment and high competition can impede efforts by counties to deflect the staffing crisis.
"We're very concerned about the number of facilities in this state that have dangerously high rates of vacancy. More than half have vacancy rates about 20%," Philips said.
Only one county facility in New Mexico, the Lincoln County Detention Center, is run by a private contractor. Correctional Solutions Group took over the management of the Carrizozo facility in November 2019 from LaSalle Corrections West LLC. Lincoln County, struggling with rising costs associated with management of the facility, hired LaSalle Corrections in June 2019, but the company opted out of the 5-year contract using a 90-day termination clause.
Lincoln County reported just six open positions at its facility as of Aug. 1.
No details were provided about the bidding process for a private contractor in Otero County, and if staffing shortages were a direct cause of seeking the alternative management model. Otero County Commissioners will discuss the option for opening a bid Aug. 11 at a regular meeting of the council. The Alamogordo Daily News was not able to reach Otero County Manager Pamela Heltner for clarification on why the County decided to take up the option of a private contractor.
Otero County Commissioners are expected to discuss opening a bid at tonight's regular Commission meeting which begins at 6 p.m.
County focuses on recruiting to empty positions amid staff shortages
Otero County Commissioners passed a resolution on July 14 approving the use of $100,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds of $13.1 million awarded to Otero County to address "critical levels of employee shortages" via hazard pay and bonuses for new hires.
Current employees — detention lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, officers and part time officers — would receive an extra $1.50 per hour in hazard pay beginning Aug. 1. A $500 one-time bonus for new hires to the corporal and detention officer positions and for and for current employees who refer a new hire was also approved.
Philips said New Mexico Counties is working to advocate on behalf of counties facing staffing shortages, appealing to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for state assistance, meeting with New Mexico's Supreme Court staff to discuss sentencing and detention issues and with law enforcement agencies which she said are on the front line of the growing inmate populations in the state.
Otero isn't alone in understaffing.
As of Aug. 1, Curry County reported the highest level of staff vacancy at 58%. Bernalillo had a 55.8% vacancy rate while Chaves had a 52.6% vacancy rate. Eddy County had 38 open staff positions for a 41% vacancy rate,, while Santa Fe had 95 open positions with a vacancy rate of 46.8%.
Among New Mexico's public correctional facilities there is a 28% vacancy rate, while its private prisons report a 29% vacancy rate.
"Vacancies among correctional officers remain high, impacting the distribution of inmates among prison facilities," read the Corrections Departments' performance report card for the third quarter of 2022.
For now Otero County has responded to the crisis by sending some if its inmates to other facilities, including theMTC run facility in Chaparral.
Philips said that until the staffing crisis has eased or other solutions emerge, New Mexico Counties would continue to work to educate stakeholders and policy makers on the issue.
She said a task force convened by the New Mexico legislature is exploring an alternate solution by reviewing the structure of New Mexico's jail system. The task force's recommendations are due sometimes this year.
Otero County considers additional correctional facility issues
An increase of the per diem rate per inmate from $73.45 in the prior approved contract to $74.92 is among the amendments to its agreement with the New Mexico Correctional Department that Commissioners will discuss.
The amended contract will also adjust the minimum number of inmates to 516 for the facility. Otero County Detention Center's population capacity now is 208 adults, according to data from New Mexico Counties.
If approved the contract would e extended through June 30, 2024.
Also on the Commissioner's agenda is the approval of an agreement with Dona Ana County to house Otero County inmates.
Otero County would be responsible for transporting the detainees to Dona Ana County, and pay $120 per inmate per day to Dona Ana to house the imamate. Additional fees would apply based on an inmates classification: medium-security risk is an additional $25 per inmate per day; high-security is $55 per inmate per day.
The agreement does not lay out under what circumstances inmates would be taken to Dona Ana County for housing.
Should New Mexico have a unified jail and prison system?
In 2020 New Mexico Sens. Steven Neville and Gerald Ortiz y Pino sponsored a Senate Memorial requiring a study to explore the benefits of a unified jail and prison system.
The Memorial, which passed the Senate 34-0, stated that unification would create a better system of file and record sharing while using "economies of scale" to save taxpayer dollars.
Philips said that most counties spend $1 of $3 of general funds on county jails.
Beyond cost, liability for counties with jails is also at issue.
"Detention facilities are the single biggest exposure counties have," she said. " It's a top priority to keep people safe and they have a Constitutional obligation to that."
Jessica Onsurez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @JussGREAT.
This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Otero County considers handing jail management to private contractor