A nationwide practice
“This is not just a New Mexico problem; this is happening throughout the country,” said Allison Frankel, an attorney with Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. “People with financial means are able to get out of custody, but those who are poor remain locked in a cage.”
In 2015, a report in Nevada found that some inmates — not just sex offenders — were kept behind bars simply because they couldn’t afford the halfway house. An Illinois federal district judge ruled in March 2019 that Illinois’ system was illegal and discriminatory because it kept indigent sex offenders imprisoned after their sentences had been served.
New Mexico’s prison system has come under scrutiny in the past for keeping people incarcerated if they couldn’t afford to rent a room in a halfway house. In 2012, the Albuquerque Journal reported that inmates were required to come up with one month’s rent to be set free; NMCD removed the requirement after a Journal reporter started asking questions.
But a similar sort of arrangement remained in place for people convicted of sex crimes.
Ruben Chavez, La Pasada’s executive director, explained the rationale: The state was holding people who were eligible for release, so Chavez allowed them to pay their own way and get out of prison in a timely manner. He said he got the same amount of money regardless who paid – the state or parolee.
Chavez said he scrapped the policy shortly after being contacted by Searchlight, adding that the change had nothing to do with this article. “It’s something that we were looking into before,” he said. “It’s such a hassle, in the past, that we decided not to do it.”
54 bites on one foot
La Pasada, founded in the 1970s, has a long and troubled history. In 2014, its former executive director, Robin Cash, was sentenced to federal prison for embezzling the facility’s funds and failing to file tax returns. A 2015 state inspection found a broken air circulation system, dilapidated furniture, and an infestation of bed bugs — pests that residents had complained about for years.
“I had 54 bites on one foot,” said Alex, a 2012 resident, who asked to be identified by his first name only. “Sixty-three bites on the other.”
Subsequent inspections showed improvements, and Chavez poured money into upgrades. In 2019, the facility built a $700,000 kitchen, which serves three meals a day and provide residents the opportunity to learn about food service. On a Friday in March when Searchlight visited, dinner was carne adovada with pinto beans, roasted potatoes, roasted onions, and tortillas on the side. Dessert was chocolate pudding.
Accommodations were spartan; most residents slept in bunkbeds, 10 people to a dorm. Each set of two dorms shared a bathroom. In total, the space can hold 120 people, Chavez said, but he caps it at 110.
Second time around
In 2018, David returned to prison. Once again, money freed him.
It was a convoluted series of events that landed him back in prison. The state claims he violated the terms of his parole by lying about where he lived; he says he wasn’t even supposed to be on parole at the time. He’s suing the parole board over the dispute.
This time, David had to pay $1,200 to get out on time. He was told that if he didn’t come up with the money, he might languish in prison for up to two years.
And just like the first time, he had the benefit of financial resources.
Still, he knew it wasn’t right for his fellow inmates to remain behind bars simply because they couldn’t afford to pay for the get-out-of-jail card.
“If I would have had the money, I would have paid for a lot of people to get out of prison,” David said. “It’s not fair that [the state] can sit here and basically pick and choose when they want to release people.”