By Jack King
Two altercations involving prisoners at the Curry County Adult Detention Center over the weekend have resulted in at least $4,000 worth of damage to the jail and an injury to a guard, Detention Center Administrator Don Burdine said today.
One incident forced guards to call in Clovis police officers for backup, who came toting bean-bag-shooting shotguns, he added.
The mayhem points up the need for either more guards or fewer prisoners at the detention center, Burdine said.
Early Friday morning, a guard trying to break up a fight between two prisoners in the detention center’s detox tank injured his right knee and ankle. He was getting a medical check of the injury Wednesday, Burdine said.
At about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, three prisoners refused to return to their cell when ordered to by guards. The prisoners used a mop handle and other objects from the cell to break a glass window at the cell’s front, causing between $4,000 and $5,000 worth of damage, Burdine said.
“We had flooding caused by a prisoner hitting a sprinkler head. The guards were letting prisoners out of their cells, one cell at a time, so they could clean up the flood water in their cells. Three prisoners refused to go back into their cell after sweeping it out,” he said.
“There were four guards on the floor at the time. They called the Clovis PD for back up, but while they were waiting the inmates broke the glass on the front of the cell,” he said.
Burdine said once police officers arrived the prisoners were handcuffed and moved to isolation cells without difficulty.
“Of course (the guards) went in with Tasers and pepper-ball guns, and the police brought beanbag shotguns, but it was the show of force that brought the incident to a close,” he said.
Neither incident was large and each is the kind of event that is common in detention centers, but they point up the need for a more favorable guard-to-prisoner ratio at the detention center, Burdine said.
“If we’d had the officers to make a show of force to begin with, they might not have happened,” he said.
“I have officers who’re telling me they are looking for other work, because they don’t feel safe with our prisoner-to-officer ratio,” he added.
The Curry County Adult Detention Center operates with five officers to a shift. With one officer in the jail’s control room and another at its booking desk; that leaves three officers on the prison floor at a time, Burdine said.
Although New Mexico has no adult jail standards, that is a low number of guards compared to similar-sized facilities in similar-sized counties, he said. “Otero and Chavez counties, which have about the same-sized jails as ours, run nine and 15 officers a shift,” he said.
“Of course, they also pay more than we do, over $10 an hour plus benefits to entry-level officers, compared to our $8.93 per hour, plus benefits,” he said.
But, Burdine said, he currently sees no solution to his staffing problem.
“The county can’t afford more. We’re already looking at a $1.4 million deficit, and that’s with no pay increase and no added staff,” he said.
County Commissioner Ed Perales, a member of the commission’s jail committee, echoed Burdine’s statement.
“If we had another half million dollars to throw into staffing, we would. But with the current financial situation, even with the continuing influx of prisoners, we just don’t have it,” he said.
Commissioner Pete Hulder, also a jail committee member, said a proposed new annex may reduce congestion in the detention center, but the county will have to hire more officers to staff that facility.
“At some point in time, the commission is going to have to make a hard decision about whether to raise taxes. If we do nothing, the state will come after us,” he said.
Burdine said he is still considering whether to file charges against the three prisoners who broke the window. On one hand, the vandalism should not go unpunished. On the other, all three are awaiting sentencing on felony charges and will soon be sent to state prison, he said.
“If I held them longer, we’d just have to pay for their upkeep here,” he said.