Los Lunas

Men and women who have had trouble with the law spoke openly with state legislators last week about their past mistakes and what they have learned from them.

The Legislative Corrections Oversight and Justice Committee met at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility on Morris Road in Los Lunas, where Warden Ron Lytle took members on a tour of the multi-level facility.

Out of 6,520 people in prisons statewide, 1,275 prisoners are housed in Los Lunas. Inmates of level one and two live inside a dormitory-style unit and are required to work at the complex, cooking, cleaning and completing repairs. These inmates also provide services, such as picking up trash, and are part of volunteer fire department crews.

Behind bars, levels three to six consist of offenders sentenced for more serious crimes and men over age 60 in the geriatric unit.

Lytle told Sen. Michael S. Sanchez (D-Valencia County) and Rep. W. Ken Martinez (D-Sandoval County), co-chairs of the committee, about the extensive experience male inmates in levels one and two have working on the farm with the New Mexico State University Agriculture Science Center. The men harvest crops during the summer months to feed beef cattle, and they milk dairy cows.

“There are a lot more programs here than people know about. This is one of the programs we like best,” Lytle said. “Our mission is to protect the public, the economy and the environment as much as possible.”

With a staff of 325 uniformed guards, now making a beginning salary of $11.50 an hour, Lytle said that he doesn’t think the facility has enough manpower, even with an additional support staff of a hundred employees made up of psychologists, medical workers, food service and business officers.

“We don’t have adequate staff. There are always five different things going on at the same time,” Lytle said. “This is a multi-task facility. Inmates are working, others are in substance-abuse and drug treatment, and there are those awaiting medical treatment.”

As part of budget limitations, the prison is constantly making decisions about medically frail inmates who need to see a doctor. But violence is down, according to Deputy Secretary of Administration Donna Wipolt-Cook, and drug use at the Los Lunas facility is less than 1 percent.

In response, Sanchez said, “No matter what, we need to make sure we protect individuals working there, the inmates and the community if a problem arises.”

Rehabilitation is stressed through the therapeutic community program in the facility’s addiction services department. Inmates volunteer to be part of a program in which they are treated for substance abuse.

Sanchez expressed his concern about follow-up outside the prison gates. Under state law, once these men are out of prison, they are not allowed to have any contact with each other while on parole. “We need to bridge the gap from prison to the real world, in hometowns where there isn’t enough support,” Sanchez said.

Warden Lytle said although he doesn’t know how effective the treatment is, he thinks the program is necessary.

“I just know we have to do something,” he said. “I’m not sure how they track inmates after they complete the program. I think that needs to be done so we can get some hope that what we’re doing is right and we can keep it up or change it. … We have to stop drug-use coming in and going out.”

Committee members briefly visited with inmates benefiting from the program. The inmates talked about taking personal responsibility for their actions and addiction problems.

“It gives us the feeling of having a family,” one inmate said. “These men are like brothers to me. We all benefit from this close-knit, intensive treatment.”

The men recognize the long journey ahead of them. “I’ve come to realize all of the things in my life that need to be changed,” an inmate named Rudy said. “But, with the help of my brothers here … I came to realize and understand my mistakes and grow from them. Every day, I learn something and am willing to share something to help out another brother.”

On the issue of visitation, the committee listened to the emotional words of one father who has been visiting his son in prison since 1982. Parents of one inmate used to visit their son in Los Lunas, where they were able to hold hands and enjoy fellowship with him once a month.

“That time was important to us,” the father said. “It was precious.”

When their son was transferred to Grants, the prison experienced a lockdown after extreme problems with drug smuggling and episodes of physical violence between inmates. Prison officials say drugs were being taken into the facility by visitors.

The family’s visitation was limited to only five-minute phone calls and people were separated by a glass barricade during visits. The father said his son was handcuffed to a stool, and it was difficult for them to communicate with each other.

To visit family members in jail, the father said, relatives will endure searches by drug dogs and metal detectors.

“Visiting conditions are hard on everyone. There’s got to be a better way to control (inmates) than stopping contact visits. We’ve put a lot of time, effort and love into seeing our son,” he said.

Sanchez responded to the family’s plea. “I can tell by the emotion you show how hard this is. This is the affect upon a family these policies have. Because of one person, everyone is paying. I am disgusted with the fact families can’t touch other,” Sanchez said.

“As honest as I am, this is a policy problem. Anytime the legislature tries to help an inmate, we’re portrayed as being soft on crime.

“We want to try to change the policy of the corrections department, to help rehabilitation instead of locking inmates up and throwing away the key.”

The second portion of the Corrections Oversight and Justice Committee meeting was held at “The Entrance to Friendship” in Los Lunas.

La Entrada de Amistad, a residential treatment facility for women on parole from state prisons is thriving at the former Los Lunas Hospital and Training School. As part of a joint collaboration with Peanut Butter and Jelly Family Services Inc. and the Amity Foundation, La Entrada is giving women parolees and former addicts a second chance at reuniting with their children.

“We want to stop repeat offenses and addiction now,” said Bette Fleishman, chief operating officer of Amity. “This program will help reduce the recidivism rate and increase employment opportunities in these women’s lives.”

Ten mothers are currently calling the cottages on campus home. “These mothers are willing to learn and break the cycle of addiction. They want to understand their kids. These mothers have lost that experience. Mom wasn’t there to comfort and nurture her kids every day,” said Angie Vachio, executive director of P B & J.

“They are becoming self-sufficient, with parenting classes and intense, interactive treatment.”

All of the women leave the program with a certificate after a targeted six-month stay, although each member has the ability to extend participation after six months.

Members of the committee were moved by the stories of the women of La Entrada. As a group, they tell of a history of addiction, sexual abuse, prostitution, violent rape, being battered and involved an abusive relationships. Their children were separated from their siblings and given away. Four of the women gave birth while incarcerated.

In a survey of the Albuquerque metro area, La Entrada discovered most people in Albuquerque won’t rent to a person with a felony conviction.

Like the male inmates, following treatment, women are not allowed to live with or have contact with others on parole supervision outside of a correctional setting and treatment facility. The women say this dismantles their support system and can cause them to relapse.

“The biggest pain is looking at their children. That’s why this program is so important. These women need each other. It’s a great opportunity at a second chance in life,” Vachio said.

Following the presentation, Martinez thanked the women for their courage, dignity and strength.

“You’re not that different than us. I can’t imagine sharing what you’ve been through,” he said. “This program was suggested by you all two years ago in Grants. Now we’re making a difference. This is a joyous occasion.”

Rep. Kandy Cordova (D-Valencia County) added, “We need to recognize the importance of La Entrada. You are all on your way to making a recovery.”

In closing, Sanchez re-stated the importance of funding treatment programs like La Entrada in Valencia County.

“The success you have with this program will determine how many people get to be in the type of program instead of being institutionalized in New Mexico and Valencia County,” Sanchez told the group.

“Look at these woman as role models who are getting past their addictions. Each one of you can do and be anything you want to be.”

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Jennifer Harmon