Legislation that aims to shift New Mexico and its counties away from reliance on private detention center operators has inched forward, but the outlook for such measures is unclear as lawmakers head into the final two weeks of the 2021 session.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted Thursday to approve House Bill 352, which would prohibit the state or counties from entering into any new contract with a private company to run a jail, prison or juvenile facility.

The bill would allow companies operating four privately run prisons in the state and county jails to continue until the end of their contracts — at least two of which would last until 2034. 

The bill also would increase state oversight of privately run county facilities and would create a transition task force charged making recommendations for how the state should respond to private prison closures, especially when it comes to providing economic and workforce support for communities affected by the shutdowns.

The Consumer and Public Affairs Committee was the first hurdle for HB 352.

A similar moratorium on private prison contracts, House Bill 40, has cleared two committees and is awaiting a third hearing in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee before it can advance to the House floor.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 291, a proposal that would allow an independent auditor to inspect New Mexico’s public and private prisons without prior notice. That bill has moved on to the full Senate for consideration. 

The proposals come after President Joe Biden announced in January the U.S. Department of Justice must end its practice of hiring private companies to operate federal prisons.

That same month, New Mexico Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said the state could eventually stop contracting with private firms, but it needs time to adapt to such a change.

Supporters of HB 352 — sponsored by Reps. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, and Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces — told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee getting rid of private prisons is a necessary step for prison reform. 

They told stories of loved ones suffering behind bars because of weak accountability measures and of private firms profiting from keeping people incarcerated.

“We’re concerned that private, for-profit prisons create a perverse incentive to incarcerate more people and keep them in longer,” said Bill Jordan, a lobbyist for the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children. 

A number of studies, including a Justice Policy Institute report from 2018, say private prisons, which emerged in the mid-1980s to deal with a growing population of inmates — often cut corners by hiring fewer staff members and reducing training.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General said private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults than federally operated prisons.

That report also said Federal Bureau of Prisons officials tasked with overseeing private prisons failed to ensure inmates in those facilities received proper medical care. Accessing public records for those facilities was difficult as well. 

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, a sponsor of SB 291, told the Senate Judiciary Committee private prisons need to be held accountable, and unplanned audits can reveal problems with abuse and neglect of inmates.

Senators on the committee who had taken part in prison visits said when officials knew inspections were coming, they made sure everything looked “spit shine and button down,” as Sen. Joe Cervantes put it. 

The Las Cruces Democrat said he and other visitors would pull prisoners aside for private talks, and “we would usually get a very different story than that of the institution.”

The committee accepted an amendment to the bill that would extend unplanned audits to public prisons.

Another measure — House Bill 191 — addresses the issue by creating the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman to monitor the state Department of Corrections and ensure it is complying with federal, state and local laws while looking into prison abuse or neglect claims.

That bill also is awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.