March 17, 2020

Attorney alleges ‘deliberate indifference’ to COVID-19 in NM prisons, threatens legal action

A group of more than two dozen New Mexico prison inmates, many with compromised immune systems, are considering legal claims against the state Corrections Department for its “gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the dangers of COVID-19,” according to documents obtained by SFR and New Mexico In Depth.

As the rest of New Mexico remains under an order against gatherings of over 50 people and pleas from officials to practice social distancing, the state’s prison system has not tested any of the thousands of inmates locked up or the corrections officers guarding them. And there do not appear to be contingency plans in place should an outbreak occur.

Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in civil rights, visited clients at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on March 9, he wrote in a notice sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and corrections officials four days later. An officer told him the minimum-security lockup “was taking no precautions against coronavirus.”

“It was indicated that it was not a serious threat and there was nothing to worry about,” Collins wrote in the notice.

“I’ve talked to several inmates since then, and they’re getting really nervous about corona,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “Corrections’ response so far seems to have been minimal — they’re just restricting visits. Beyond that, there seems to be no testing and no plan for when this gets really bad. We are going to protect our clients.”

The tort claims notice Collins filed last week — essentially an intent to sue letter — underscores the perilous position in which jail and prison inmates find themselves around New Mexico and the nation as all corners of society brace against the spread of COVID-19.

Health experts say people with damaged immune systems are particularly at risk. Collins said many of the 27 clients mentioned in his notice have hepatitis C, diabetes or other conditions that have weakened their immunities.

Collins’ action represents people who are locked up in prisons around the state, mostly the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, the prison in Los Lunas and the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Grants, Collins said.

“It’s really concerning because jails and prisons are hotbeds of infection: the closed quarters, the lack of ventilation, no hand sanitizer,” he said in the interview. “It’s almost impossible to social distance, and so our clients are in very vulnerable situations because the prisons do not have the capability even on their best day of treating an epidemic.”

He represents many of those 27 people in ongoing lawsuits against the Corrections Department and its past medical providers. New claims could include Wexford Health, which has a contract for medical services in the prisons, alleging negligence and inadequate care.

Wexford did not respond to a request for comment on Collins’ new claims, but a spokesman for the department said the attorney’s visit to the Los Lunas prison came before New Mexico’s first confirmed COVID-19 infection.

At that time, the department was “following standard flu season sanitation procedures” and monitoring the coronavirus situation nationally, spokesman Eric Harrison said.

“Upon the confirmation of cases in New Mexico, we immediately took action,” Harrison said, pointing to measures since last week, including eliminating all “contact visitation” at state prisons, even for attorneys and family members, to prevent the disease from spreading.

Since then, however, not a single inmate or staff member has been tested, and the Corrections Department does not appear to have a contingency plan in place should coronavirus spread through a prison.

Officials at the state’s 11 prisons are informing inmates about the virus, Harrison said. The state Health Department would conduct inmate tests “if our medical provider deems it necessary,” he said, and Corrections is “diligently informing our staff of COVID-19 symptoms and signs.”

Harrison said Corrections officials are discussing the possibility of “screening” — but not testing — all staff members before they begin their shifts.

Collins said he expects to amend several of the existing lawsuits, which predate the COVID-19 outbreak, to include claims about what he calls Corrections’ failure to prepare for and protect people against the virus.

“Given NMCD’s shameless behavior in the past, it is expected that NMCD and its medical providers will attempt to use coronavirus as an excuse for further denial of medical care,” he wrote. “NMCD and its medical providers will be held accountable for its callous indifference to what is an inevitable outbreak of coronavirus in the state’s prisons.”

Collins, in his notice, asked the department to preserve a host of records, including all communications related to its “preparation, planning and execution of coronavirus protections within any and all NMCD facilities.”

In the interview, he connected prisons to their larger communities as the public health crisis surrounding COVID-19 grows. Corrections officers, he said, should be tested along with inmates. That’s because the guards are around more people than those who are locked up — and limiting person-to-person contact is the primary recommendation from health and government officials to slow the virus’ spread.

“The guards need to be protected, too,” Collins said. “They are out in the community, and they are likely being exposed to corona both inside the prisons and out. Honestly, we sent out this notice of tort claim so that, hopefully, the state will take action. And I hope that the public will see that this situation could impact them and their own safety. Just judging by the science behind this, it’s almost certain that people have already brought this thing into the prisons, and it’s going to get bad.”

Update: This story has been updated; NM Political Report used an old version of the New Mexico In Depth story with different wording regarding Wexford Health.

New Mexico In Depth co-published this story with our partner, the Santa Fe Reporter.

This article first appeared on New Mexico In Depth and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.