Lack of state standards both a blessing and curse for county’s jail

A detention center inmates shirt hangs from the door as other inmates play basketballFriday at the jail. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth.

By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer

When it comes to jail standards, state law allows New Mexico’s 33 counties to do pretty much whatever they want as long as jail practices don’t offend a judge.

That’s a mixed blessing, according to Curry County Adult Detention Center Administrator Don Burdine. Burdine said a state committee tried to establish statewide jail standards in 1992 but those efforts were vetoed by the governor who believed the state shouldn’t require counties to do things without providing the money to make them happen.

“The governor and some county commissioners perceived it would be an unfunded mandate, but that was not the case,” Burdine said. “(The proposed standards) all had to do with life safety issues, very basic standards. It had to do with fire safety inspections, medical intake questionnaires, sanitation, dietary issues, those sorts of things.”

The absence of formal state standards doesn’t mean jailers can put 20 people in a room with one bed or hang people upside down from the ceilings. Rather, Burdine said, it means jail administrators have to decide what they should do based on court precedents — in other words, the most recent interpretation by a judge of whether a jailer was right or wrong in a specific local case.

“Right now an individual can look at various federal regulations and pick and choose,” Burdine said. “There are several federally recognized standards and some of them conflict with each other so there is no way to definitively say I am living up to the rules because there are no rules to live up to.”

A former sheriff and jail administrator for Quay County served on that state committee and said he regrets the governor’s decision 12 years ago to veto the proposed standards.

“They wanted to establish standards so across the state we could get standardized training and pretty much all the counties would do their training process the same,” said Joel Garnett, now retired and living in Tucumcari.

“We all wanted to be able to handle the problem inmates better,” Garnett said. “I think the reason it didn’t go through was the unfunded mandate concern.”

While there are still no state-mandated jail standards, Garnett said the insurance program provided to jails by the New Mexico Association of Counties has filled some of the gap.

“The Association of Counties got all the county managers and county commissioners together and we pretty much set up policies and procedures that the counties would adopt,” Garnett said. “There is certified training for the officers now and that’s what we wanted to get mandated so we all kept records the same and our booking process and our officers would follow the same procedures.”

“We provide resources to the counties and we have a significant amount of expertise in the area of detention centers on staff,” said Bruce Swingle, loss prevention manager for the association.

Swingle said resources available to the counties include assisting and consulting on cost-saving efficiency measures, inspections to ensure compliance with the standards of the American Corrections Association, and training.

“Curry County has an excellent trainer,” Swingle said. “She has trained a number of detention officers from various facilities around the state.”

“I don’t believe there is any one area in New Mexico that is of concern to the detention centers,” Swingle said. “Various facilities have their particular issues to deal with around New Mexico.”

Local jails insured by the association include those in Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties but not De Baca County.