- Associated Press - Friday, October 14, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The top corrections official for New Mexico plans to retire at the end of the month, bringing to an end a nearly five-year tenure that the governor says led to widespread reform within the state’s prison system but critics indicate was marked by turmoil in recent months.

Gov. Susana Martinez announced Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel resignation late Friday, noting he sought to reduce the number of inmates who spent time in solitary confinement and brought all of the state’s prisons into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The announcement comes amid an especially tumultuous year for the department that included the high-profile escape of a convicted murderer and another violent felon from the back of a prison van in March. In August, revelations emerged that probation officers had not monitored a suspect charged in the assault and killing of a 10-year-old Albuquerque girl - a development that has raised questions over whether other probation and parole cases may have slipped through the cracks.

Marcantel, 56, said he is leaving his job to spend more time with his ailing mother.

“This was a tough decision to make, but I need to spend more time with my mother, who is suffering from serious medical conditions,” he said in a statement. “At the end of the day, I need to do what’s best for my family.”

Marcantel, a Marine Corps veteran, became cabinet secretary in 2011 of the Corrections Department, which administers a prison system of more than 6,000 inmates. His three-decade law enforcement career includes nearly 19 years in the Bernalillo County sheriff’s office.

“Under his leadership, we’ve taken a tough, but smart, approach to crime,” Martinez said.

Almost from the start, controversy clouded Marcental’s stint as corrections secretary after Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, raised objections over his appointment. She said he did not disclose that he was suspended twice while working for law enforcement in Louisiana three decades earlier.

While secretary, Marcantel pushed to reduce the recidivism rate in the state’s prisons, and expanded a unit to track and apprehend some 2,000 offenders on the run from law enforcement, the governor said.

In 2013, he charted a plan to reduce segregation of inmates after a report criticized New Mexico’s widespread use of solitary confinement, with statistics showing nearly 10 percent of the state’s 7,000 prisoners were locked down alone for up to 23 hours a day.

Mercantel also secured roughly $12 million in funding from the Legislature this year to boost compensation and maintenance within the Corrections Department during a tough budget fight in the cash-strapped state.

The appropriation was initially lauded by corrections officers but a rift deepened between Mercantel and the union after he and other top administrators put into place a pay structure that gave raises to officers with less experience but largely overlooked veteran corrections officers, a union spokesman said. Mercantel also used $400,000 of the new funding for high-level administrative positions.

“We got that money with the understanding that everybody was going to get a little bit of a lift,” said Miles Conway, who represents the corrections officers as a union spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Last month, the union began taking a no-confidence vote against Marcantel, Conway said, coming up with 400 no-confidence and 30 confidence votes for the secretary before he announced his retirement. Conway wished Mercantel well, saying “nobody understands the importance of family more than the union members,” but lamented policy decisions by the corrections secretary that he says prioritized reform over prison security.

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