SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday named a career New Mexico corrections officer who once sued to state for gender discrimination based on pay inequities to lead a combination private-public prison system.
Alisha Tafoya Lucero — who Lujan Grisham called "tough as nails" — already took the reins of the agency as interim secretary in May to oversee some 7,300 inmates. She was appointed Cabinet secretary based in part on her recent job performance.
The governor initially appointed former Florida prisons chief Julie Jones to lead the New Mexico Corrections Department but Jones withdrew from the job, citing personal issues, in February.
Tafoya Lucero will earn an annual salary of $150,000 as she oversees an agency that has struggled with rising recidivism among inmates and difficulties in hiring and retaining guards.
The new appointment — filling the last empty Cabinet seat of the first-year administration — appears to turn the tables on a male-dominated agency culture.
Tafoya Lucero sued the Corrections Department in 2013 for discrimination and damages, citing an hourly pay differential between her $29 salary as a deputy warden at the state penitentiary and a male deputy warden who earned $39 to fulfill similar responsibilities.
A district court judge rejected the state's argument that government agencies were exempt from the Fair Pay for Women Act and a financial settlement was reached in recent months. Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki declined to provide financial terms of the agreement.
The governor and Tafoya Lucero highlighted the need for more effective efforts to reduce recidivism that might involve educational and vocational training for inmates or newly released inmates. They said the corrections agency was likely to turn to success stories outside of New Mexico, citing a lack of record-keeping under the previous, Republican administration.
"We haven't done a great job as an agency in the past with collecting that data," Tafoya Lucero said. "We do know that there are a lot of programs out there in the world, in the United States, that are evidence-based, that have been shown to reduce recidivism."
The governor and Tafoya Lucero emphasized efforts to uphold accountability at privately run prisons that shelter about half the prison population and to improve health care amid ongoing contract negotiations with providers.
Tafoya Lucero began serving as a corrections officer in 2001 and later became deputy warden at the state penitentiary outside Santa Fe.
Solitary confinement won't disappear from New Mexico prisons, she said, even as the state begins enforcing a new law that bans the isolation of juvenile and pregnant women and limits solitary confinement of inmates with serious mental disabilities for more than 48 hours.
"I think sometimes it is a necessary tool to separate individuals from individuals for their own safety, for the safety of the staff and the safety of other individuals," Tafoya Lucero said. She said the need for solitary confinement can be reduced with new, meaningful activities for inmates.
The ACLU says as many as one in 10 inmates were found to be held in solitary confinement on a September day in 2018. The state said the rate was about 4% at the time.