Following a rash of in-custody deaths, New Mexico’s largest jail is turning to wrist-worn technology to better monitor inmate health.
Bernalillo County is planning to spend $2 million over five years on a “Custody Protect” system that includes smartwatch-like devices and tech support. The wristbands track wearers’ heart rate and other biometrics and will send alerts to jail staff when something seems amiss.
That could provide a new layer of oversight at the jail where corrections officers are currently required “to visually monitor high-risk inmates for signs of physical distress, often on a one-on-one basis,” according to county documents.
The chronically understaffed jail has had 21 people die in custody in the past three years. About half of them were detoxing from drugs and alcohol.
Metropolitan Detention Center warden Jason Jones said the jail will put the new devices on detainees undergoing detox, as well as those actively wanting to harm themselves and those in “clinical seclusion for psychosis.” That could be up to 200 people at any given time.
John DeFalco, CEO of the 4Sight Labs, the company behind the technology, said it measures heart rate, heart rate variability — how the amount of time between each heart beat changes — and when someone is moving “aggressively” in a fashion that may lead to self-harm. When the bands detect problems, jail staff get immediate notifications via tablet computers linked to the system.
About 80-120 people in MDC each day are in detox protocol, Jones told the county commission earlier this week. He described it as a “critical” and unpredictable phase in someone’s stay.
“They can be doing great for 48 hours, but on hour 49, they kind of fall out,” Jones said. “So for us to have an early-warning system, I think it will prevent a lot of other issues in the future.”
The warden assured the commission that the bands are “detention-grade,” designed to withstand tampering or removal attempts and already used by many other jails around New Mexico.
The commission unanimously approved the purchase, with several members applauding the move.
“It sounds like something that offers a really promising technological solution to some of the manpower challenges we have at the jail,” Commissioner Eric Olivas said.
Commissioner Adriann Barboa said the conversation almost made her emotional, describing it as positive momentum at a facility with a troubled past.
“This is leadership,” she told Jones, who took over at the jail in late 2022. “Looking at the problem and instead of denying it … you’re looking at it face on and finding solutions. Just … yay.”
Jones told the commission the facility also has two new drug-detecting dogs in training now and they will eventually be on-site too, which commissioners heralded as another positive development.
“We know that drugs are getting into the facility, and we’ve got deaths going on all the time,” Commissioner Walt Benson said. “We can’t let them in, and dogs are one of the best solutions for that. That’s great news.”
The commission this week also approved a new “joint powers agreement” between the county and the University of New Mexico as the parties work to bring UNM Hospital in as the MDC health care provider. That would mark a change for the facility, which has long relied on for-profit, corporate entities for jail health care.