- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2021

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico is sticking with its approach to contracting with privately operated prisons - and possibly phasing them out as time and money allow, state Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero told a panel of lawmakers Thursday.

The top prison official under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced opposition to a bill that would make it unlawful for the state and local governments to contract with private prisons across New Mexico.

The bill from Democratic legislators including Rep. Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces would cut loose three private prison operators that oversee four New Mexico facilities - and nearly half of state inmates. The proposal responds to a variety of concerns about for-profit entities in the criminal justice system.

“When it is safe and reasonable to convert a private facility into a public facility we absolutely will, as we did in Clayton in 2019,” Tafoya Lucero told a panel of legislators, referring to the now state-run Northern New Mexico Correctional Facility. “But doing so requires significant planning, staffing, and ultimately significant fiscal resources.”

President Joe Biden this week ordered the Department of Justice to end its reliance on privately run prisons, directing the attorney general not to renew contracts. The move effectively reverts the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration.

In New Mexico, Tafoya Lucero said that ending private prison contracts abruptly would disrupt access to about 3,000 prison beds that cannot be immediately substituted.

Rubio, the bill sponsor, criticized state contracts with for-profit prisons as morally untenable said government-run facilities tend to reinvest more money in the local economy.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said Friday that a rapid exit from private prisons contracts would require a major financial commitment from lawmakers to lease and buy prison facilities and to scale up public employment of corrections officers.

“If the bill is to proceed, I would expect the Legislature to recognize the imperative to significantly fund that effort,” he said. “Absent that, it’s logistically unfeasible.”

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