For hundreds of people in New Mexico, getting out of jail or prison hinges on whether there’s a bed in a halfway house, a slot in a treatment program or space in a mental health facility. Until a spot opens up, they remain behind bars, and it costs taxpayers thousands of extra dollars while they wait.
If you don’t have first-hand experience with incarceration in New Mexico, the way you picture the process might be something like this: you get sentenced, you do your time, count down the days, and then you leave. That’s not how it was for Linda Nastacio. "I had a court date in January," she said. "I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know what was going on."
Nastacio is from Zuni Pueblo and has five kids ranging in age from 16 to 4. She’d been in jail in Bernalillo County for a couple of months on a drug charge and wasn’t sure when she would get out. "They didn’t release me because I didn’t have a program," she said. "When I was incarcerated, that’s all we ever talked about."
She had to find some kind of halfway house or rehabilitation center for the judge to set her release date. The wait time at most of them was 7 to 9 months. It’s especially slim pickings for women.
"Some of the women were in there for petty misdemeanors, and they couldn’t even get a court date. And while waiting for a court date, they know what needs to get done. They know what a judge is looking for," she said. "We would all try to get that, those applications put in. But if they’re not available, you just have to stay back in jail."
Nastacio said when you’re behind bars, you lose hope if there’s no end in sight. The applications, the wait lists, they’re exhausting. By a stroke of luck, a spot opened up at a halfway house and treatment center for women, and Nastacio was able to leave jail in May after just a few months.
We don’t know exactly how many people are stuck in cells in Bernalillo County’s jail waiting for slots in programs—the jail doesn’t track that. We do know folks with serious mental illness spend more time in county lockups than other people, according to a 2013 report, in part because they, too, are waiting for treatment beds.
Grace Philips is general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties. "They will be in detention 121 days longer than somebody who doesn’t have a serious mental illness but who’s charged with the same crime," she said.
As much as 40 percent of the people in the Bernalillo County jail are coping with mental illness, and half of the jail’s medical budget goes to mental health. "Why is it that people who might otherwise be released into treatment are having to wait, and do their waiting in detention?" Philips asked. "It’s far too long. It’s an unacceptable situation that we have now."
Remember, county jails don’t keep track of how many people are stuck behind bars because there aren’t slots in programs. But the New Mexico Corrections Department does. It operates six prisons statewide and keeps a count of exactly how many people are being held past their release dates while waiting for services. In late April, when I spoke with the bureau chief for recidivism reduction, Micaela Cadena, that count was 216.
"There are instances in which an inmate in our custody, has an approved parole plan that includes moving toward a treatment bed on the outside," she said. "If there is no bed available at that time, then that person in our custody will be waiting for a bed in our prison facilities."
In addition to those 216 people who’ve blown past their release dates but remain in prison waiting for services, the state’s Sentencing Commission says another 363 people might be eligible for controlled release into a community-based setting.
"We do acknowledge that to date there are insufficient resources for this process that exist within our community partners and community agencies," Cadena said.
Each year that one person spends in treatment instead of prison saves the state about $14,000. The state’s Corrections Department is looking to invest in transitional housing options.
In the meantime, two major behavioral health providers in southern New Mexico shut their doors in the last two months. And a bill that would have built four new halfway houses was passed by state lawmakers this year but Gov. Susana Martinez never signed it.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.