By Marisa Demarco
The dark gray skies and snow in Albuquerque last week were nothing new to Phillip Greer, who comes to the desert by way of Minnesota. There he managed the regional jail, the juvenile detention center, and probation and parole for three counties. He’s taking over as chief of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, one of the 40 largest jails in the country. I interviewed him about problems particular to MDC—overcrowding, sexual assault, mental health—as well as his philosophy on incarceration.
Your background is in assuring that jails comply with national standards. What will you be looking for at MDC?
I’ve been fortunate to have the honor to be a consultant and auditor for the American Corrections Association for about 10 years, traveling the country, inspecting jails and facilities for compliance with nationally recognized standards. Those standards cover everything, from our medical services to our food services to our security services and record-keeping management.
MDC is one of the 40 largest jails in the country. It’s considered a “mega jail.” What special considerations do you have to make when you’re running such a big jail?
You have to look at cause and effect impact when you’re running a large organization. We have multiple units. We need to be consistent in those units but understand that not every one of them can be managed exactly the same way because of the classification and the type of inmate housing that they are.
I interviewed your predecessor, Chief Ramon Rustin, and he identified overcrowding as the toughest issue at the Metropolitan Detention Center. How do you intend to handle overcrowding?
Well, I’m pleased to say that crowding is not an issue at MDC currently. We have a bed capacity of over 2,200 beds, and yesterday was the first time we’ve dropped below 1,700. And we are maintaining the average in the 1,700s right now. That’s due to a lot of initiatives in the public safety community, in the courts, in the pre-trial services, in the community custody program.
So how do you intend to work with folks further up the line—like the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the courts—to keep overcrowding at bay?
It’s important to establish and maintain relationships with the other entities. When one part of the criminal justice system makes a decision or moves in a certain direction, it has ripple effects for the rest of us.
And the McClendon lawsuit has hung over MDC for years and years—this is also related to overcrowding. How do you think it will affect your job?
The McClendon lawsuit and the oversight of MDC is certainly new to me. I would like to take the word “McClendon” off of everybody’s tongue, out of their vocabulary, and replace it with “correctional best practices.” That’s what McClendon expects of us, to utilize correctional best practices, evidence-based practices.
MDC is also considered the largest mental health facility in the state. And a lot of the inmates are getting their mental health care from the jail. What do you think of that going in?
Well, I think in every state, mental health needs have been forwarded to the jail for decades. It’s something that jails across the country are struggling with. I think we are ahead of the curve. I think we have a lot of great mental health resources that are being employed in the jail. And I think hopefully we can positively impact people while they’re in our custody and then perhaps provide a continuity of care as they transition to the community.
So half of the jail’s $12 million medical budget goes to mental health. Do you intend to continue that funding?
We’re at an appropriate level of care right now. We have more resources and mental health services in our facility than a vast majority of facilities in this country.
Now there’s been talk of discontinuing the methadone program at MDC. Do you think it should be ended?
No, I don’t. I think the methadone program has a purpose for not only reducing the need for the drug but in assisting in relapse prevention and assisting in reducing the likelihood of overdose death after someone leaves the facility.
Now the jail is also facing a civil suit, because it’s alleged that a guard sexually assaulted a female inmate. Are any extra steps being taken to combat sexual assault in the jail?
We are very dedicated to following PREA, which is the Prison Rape Elimination Act. We have employed a number of methods to meet and achieve the standards outlined by PREA. We have set up reporting hotlines. We have a PREA team. We’ve gone through the facility and made structural changes. We’ve got investigative techniques. That is something that we are strongly dedicated to, is providing supervision in a humane way that protects people.
Fourteen people were mistakenly released from MDC last year. What can be done to prevent that from happening?
Well, we’re currently looking at new jail management system. It’s a record system, and it affects a multitude of areas of our operations. Instead of having siloed information systems, it’s one system that interacts and will allow us to verify identities before release.
Are you requesting funding for that system?
That funding has already been discussed at a county level. This project was in place before my arrival.
What’s your philosophy overall for running an incarceration facility?
Well, my core philosophy is that we have the safest, most humane facility that we possibly can, making sure that we have a facility of a culturally competent, well-trained professional workforce.
What does a culturally competent workforce look like?
Culturally competent workforce means that we have an awareness, an understanding and education in appropriately interacting with people from all communities, all cultures, all educational levels, all backgrounds.