A Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) could help improve the Doña Ana County Detention Center.
This proposal is independent of any criticisms I may have of the jail administration. It's based on successful models as diverse as Canada and New Mexico's own San Miguel County.
The Canadian CAC system, initiated in 1965, began to function as a national organization after the 1977 MacGuigan Report, which was sparked by several serious prison disturbances. The Canadian Government believed that the disturbances showed the need for community representatives who could monitor and evaluate correctional policies and procedures. As the Report noted, “correctional agencies traditionally operated in isolation” and “the public had never been well informed about corrections or the criminal justice system.” Both observations accurately describe our jail.
The Canadians saw that properly structured CAC's could both inform the public about prison realities and advise the Canadian Correctional Service (CSC) of its own shortcomings. For nearly forty years the CSC and the CAC's have been refining their relationship.
In the successful Canadian program, CAC's have three main roles: as advisors, impartial observers, and liasons.
As advisors they provide impartial advice from a cross-section of community members concerning operations. Their suggestions are based on regular meetings with offenders, local union representatives, and local detention center management.
They observe during both day-to-day operations and institutional crises, so as to assist detention center officials in evaluating and monitoring how well the detention center fulfills its missions in accordance with laws and policies. They also help demonstrate – to the public, to employees, and to incarcerated persons – the detention center's commitment to openness, integrity, and accountability.
As liaisons, they provide management a community perspective, help tell the jail's story to the public, and encourage additional public understanding of and participation in the correctional process.
In Las Vegas the CAC has some definite accomplishments to report. Construction on a “re-integration center” right near the jail is nearly complete. Maybe we couldn't replicate that here; but I lunched Tuesday with a fellow whose felony conviction as a teenager has made it difficult for decades to get back into the work force.
Warden Patrick Snedeker, who went to NMSU back around when I did, speaks highly of the CAC for just the reasons the Canadians do. (Caveat: Las Vegas is a much smaller town with a smaller jail at 50% capacity, and is (enviably) focused on rehabilitation.)
“We've been very successful with the CAC,” Snedeker told me recently. “The CAC can help with things as diverse as legislative funding, getting information to decision-makers such as the County Commission, and identifying resources within the community. It also helps the community understand our purpose and our plans.”
“We absolutely try to focus on rehabilitation, whether through grant funding or partnerships with other entities.”
“Our three major concerns are violence, substance abuse, and recidivism.”
The need for an independent CAC is more urgent here than in Las Vegas. We have a much bigger jail, setting a much harder set of tasks for our jailers, including Mr. Barela.
At least here, things happen that either don't reach Mr. Barela or reach him but not the public or the County Commission. The name Slevin should ring some bells; and I'm aware of a few more recent situations that could lead to huge verdicts if prisoners sued. And I don't even spend much time at the jail. Most of the problems are avoidable.
Again, Mr. Barela has a huge, difficult task. Even without the current investigation, he – or anyone in his position – could use the help of a CAC. Let's get one going.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 4 October 2015. For further information on Canadian CAC's, click here.] The site also has links to recent annual reports by the national CAC.]