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New Mexico: Editorial calls for public take over of MTC jail.

Jail rules build case for county takeover
The New Mexican
August 13, 2004

Fresh from his victory over vile tobacco, the manager in charge of the Santa Fe County jail is going after further sins in his domain.

Immorally or distractively dressed visitors are next on the list for Kerry Dixon, who runs the hoosegow not as an official factotum for county taxpayers, but as a foreman for a Utah company called Management and Training Corp.

MTC is one of several companies nationwide trading in human misery. They find sheriffs and other public servants tired of doing their jobs, and offer to do the dirty work for them -- for around $7.5 million a year, in our county jail's case.

In the process, they help create a demand for bodies to lock up. If there aren't enough county inmates, then part of the deal is that the company can make some of the local jail available to federal prisoners from around the country.

Santa Fe's new 670-bed jail was run so poorly in its early years that the Department of Justice took away the federal prisoners. Dollar signs with wings were seen flying away.

Last year, MTC canned its warden and deputy warden over filthy conditions and allegations of civil-rights violations. Dixon seems determined to make the place once again worthy of federal detainees; thus the ban on tobacco at the beginning of this month, and the dress code scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

As a health measure, the smoking ban was hard to argue with -- and to the extent that it reduced opportunities for folks to smuggle in dope, it also made sense. But it also had aspects of chicken, uh, manure -- and Santa Fe already has a huge surplus of that commodity.

Same for the ban on "provocative" or "distractive" clothing: If it truly causes fights or other bad behavior inside the plexiglass separating cons from their visitors, some limits are in order.

But Dixon's declaration that "visitors are going to start dressing right" is a hint that, like some of his predecessors, he's about to take liberties with the civil liberties of law-abiding people.

If the warden is worried that clothing might be used to smuggle drugs or other contraband into the jail, he might start by ordering more pat-downs -- or even some pat-downs -- of both guards and visitors.

But banning shorts, dresses or skirts cut above the knee, not to mention tank tops and even baseball caps? C'mon; it's hot outside. And besides, many of the inmates' family members can't afford to buy outfits suitable for Utah or Texas, Dixon's last duty station.

The warden's other new rules, replacing commercial TV with life-skill teaching programs, are on the right track. But if Dixon and Co. were exclusively interested in "corrections," he'd be seeking more partnerships with public and private social-work agencies to head inmates onto productive post-jail careers, and find the kind of help families need when dad's behind bars.

That's what publicly run jails, or what remains of them, still do. And it's why the Board of County Commissioners abdicated its responsibility once again with Tuesday's vote to renew MTC's contract for two more years.

County voters and taxpayers can only hope the commissioners will use the new contract period to gird up their loins and prepare to put this end of the criminal-justice system back in public hands.

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