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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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It’s a staggering statistic, but according to nonprofit organization The Sentencing Project, New Mexico houses a higher percentage of its inmates in privately operated prisons than any other state in the U.S. According to the New Mexico Department of Corrections, a full 53 percent of our prison population is being held in facilities that are monetized like any other business. In comparison only 8.2 percent of inmates in total are housed in private (state or federal) prisons across the country. Twenty-two states do not employ private prisons, but New Mexico’s numbers are markedly higher than any other state. The Sentencing Project monitors prisons populations around the country and seeks reforms in sentencing policy and addresses unjust racial disparities and practices.

The newly introduced House Bill 40, the Private Detention Facilities Moratorium Act, aims to end the for-profit prison industry in New Mexico. The idea behind the bill sponsored by Reps. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces), Karen Bash (D-Albuquerque), Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) and Daymon Ely (D-Corrales) would essentially prohibit the state from entering into any new contracts or agreements for the operation of private detention facilities. It could also prohibit the practice of using private prisons to house immigration detainees.

In the 1990s there was a boom of private prisons across the U.S. Many of those prisons were in rural areas and were seen as an economic boost to those areas. Job creation was a driving force in convincing politicians and residents that having a prison in their backyard was a good thing. Currently, there are five privately held prisons in New Mexico. The GEO Group, located in Boca Raton, Fla., manages the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa and the Lea County Correctional Facilities in Hobbs. According to their annual report, the GEO group operates 123 private prisons around the world and reported a net income of $166 million in 2019. In 2019 GEO Group decided to leave its contract with the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton, citing numerous reasons including the inability to offer competitive wages for potential and current employees.

The American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico is supporting the bill by stating on their website, “Private, profit-driven prison contractors are inherently incentivized to maximize profits while minimizing costs. These contractors’ primary duty is to their shareholders rather than to New Mexicans.”

According to the Albuquerque Journal, in 2012, private prison contractors GEO Group and CCA (now CoreCivic) incurred $1.6 million in penalties in New Mexico for understaffing, contract violations and holding inmates beyond their release date. New Mexico had to sue these private contractors for unpaid penalties and fines.

In 2018 state lawmakers, however, didn’t offer much support for getting out of the private prison industry. Outgoing Democratic Rep. Bill McCamley from Las Cruces wanted something similar to HB 40, but couldn’t get any traction. Rep. Angelica Rubio introduced a similar bill in 2019, but it never made its way out of the Judiciary Committee. The current proposed bill would not impact private facilities used for educational, vocational or medical services. Whether Governor Lujan Grisham and the Legislature are willing to have the state foot the bill for its own prison system in the future could determine whether HB 40 has a fighting chance.

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