I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
NM could have repeatedly fined private prisons for low staffing levels
The state appears to have been within its rights last year to repeatedly penalize two private prison operators for letting their vacancy rates hover above a 10 percent trigger in their contracts, state records show.
By contract New Mexico can levy penalties against the two firms – GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) — when staffing vacancies at the facilities they manage in Hobbs, Grants, Clayton and Santa Rosa stay at 10 percent or more for 30-consecutive days.
Staffing levels at three of the four privately operated facilities hovered above 10 percent for much of last year, state records show. As for the fourth facility, the vacancy rate was above the 10 percent trigger in six of the 13 months the state records covered.
Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, who worked for GEO before Gov. Bill Richardson tapped him as corrections secretary, told The Independent last week the state had never penalized GEO or CCA despite vacancy rates repeatedly topping the 10 percent trigger. He had the discretion to decide whether to penalize the firms or not, and he had decided against it, Williams said. The firms were doing a good job of managing the prisons, he added.
Some state lawmakers are wondering why Williams never assessed the penalties. Some believe the never-assessed penalties could amount to millions of dollars.
State records show that vacancies at GEO-operated Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa were above the 10 percent threshold in 11 of the13 months between July 2009 to July 2010; 10 of the 13 months at the GEO-run Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs; and nine of the 13 months at the CCA-operated New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants.
The vacancy rate at the GEO-run Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility eclipsed the 10 percent rate in six of the 13 months covered by the time period shown in the records, state records show.
The agency on Friday reiterated Williams’ discretion in deciding whether to penalize the companies or not.
“The contract clauses that deal with vacancy rates gives sole discretion to NMCD so that they may penalize the private prisons,” read an e-mail to The Independent after we had sent questions related to the vacancy rates from July 2009 to July 2010.
“The penalties are not mandatory and are decided by the department,” the e-mail continued. “Secretary Williams will be presenting the reasons to why he has not penalized the vendors to the Legislative Finance Committee in an upcoming hearing. The department welcomes you to attend the committee hearing.”
The time and date of the hearing is unknown at this time.