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N.M. prisons expected to fill up as population grows

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A forecast prepared by the state sentencing commission shows New Mexico’s prison system will have more inmates in the next few years than it currently has cells to hold them.

While the growth of New Mexico’s prison population has slowed, the state is bucking the national trend as its total prison population continues to grow.

The correction system is projected to hold 7,192 men by the 2024 fiscal year. That will exceed current capacity by more than five dozen. The number of women in the system also is expected to surpass capacity that year.

The forecast was presented Monday to members of a legislative committee focused on the courts, corrections and criminal justice. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the projections come as crime in New Mexico has risen, particularly in Albuquerque, and as the state’s prisons get older.

Deputy Corrections Department Secretary Jerry Roark said the state’s prisons are more than 30 years old, have more than $300 million in deferred maintenance and are all beyond useful their useful life.

Roark said it can cost between $104 and $120 a day to house an inmate in a state-run prison while it costs between $58 to $70 a day plus about $21 for medical expenses at a private facility.

About half of New Mexico’s inmates are held in prisons run by private companies, which Roark said are designed to operate with fewer staff, lowering direct costs.

He added that the state’s prisons were mostly designed after a bloody 1980 penitentiary riot near Santa Fe and in turn designed to control and contain inmates, not necessarily provide classroom space or other facilities for programs that might help prepare inmates to leave the corrections system.

The prison system holds about 120 people who are eligible for release, Roark told the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

A review by The Associated Press found that the state has held many inmates for all or part of their parole, costing millions of dollars a year. Often, those who should be freed are held because they are unable to find or afford suitable housing outside prison. Other times, inmates who should be freed are held because of missing paperwork or administrative backlogs.

“It’s a problem,” Roark said.

The number of men in New Mexico’s prisons has grown during the last decade from about 6,000 in fiscal year 2008 to 6,605 in fiscal year 2018.

And the number of women has grown at an even faster clip, to a record high of 797.

The forecast shows a larger share of New Mexico’s inmates are in prison for violent crimes and drug offenses than the rest of the country, while fewer are in prison on property or public order offenses.

According to the report, more men were locked up for parole violations and what are known as serious violent offenses than for any other charges during fiscal year 2017. The number of men incarcerated for drug possession also has risen in the last year.

More women were admitted to prison during that same time for parole violations and for drug possession than for any other category of crimes.

During the 2017 fiscal year, half of inmates were back in prison within three years of release, according to legislative analyses.

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