December 11, 2020

NM Prison and Jail project launches, files first lawsuit against the state

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

A new, local non-profit organization aiming to advocate for the civil rights of those incarcerated in New Mexico launched Thursday and announced a lawsuit against the New Mexico Corrections Department. 

The New Mexico Prison and Jails Project announced that it filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the state Corrections Department of violating the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). 

Steven Robert Allen, formerly a policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, is the project’s director. He said the group’s first lawsuit stemmed from an inquiry to find out more about how the Corrections Department procedurally handles records requests. 

“I think it’s particularly ironic that we have this lawsuit against the Corrections Department for violating IPRA because all we were doing was asking them for their policies and practices for what they’re doing to comply with IPRA,” Allen said. 

Some of the group’s steering committee was present at a virtual news conference announcing the formation of the group and its first lawsuit.

Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte is one of those steering committee members and said on Thursday that one of the goals of the project is to offer representation in civil rights cases where there is normally a dearth of available lawyers. 

“This project, the PJP, is designed to fill that gap, to fill that void and to create an an environment where we can bring multiple lawsuits against the prison or jail system to create change, to bring publicity,” Coyte said. 

The IPRA lawsuit the PJP filed this week argued that the response by the Department of Corrections to the project’s records requests “were so fundamentally inadequate and unreasonable that they are the equivalent of not responding to the [records request] at all.”

Coyte said getting adequate records from prisons and jails is key to making sure inmates and detainees are being treated fairly and properly. 

“I think everyone knows that prisons and jails are secretive places. The public doesn’t really have an awareness of what happens behind the closed doors of the prison and jail,” Coyte said. “And thus abuse is allowed to occur without great check or balance on things because the public eye isn’t there.”

The suit alleges that an attempt to obtain records regarding legal complaints filed against Corrections for violating IPRA as well as communications about IPRA policy changes, ended with deflections by department officials who cited various parts of statute and records law exemptions. In one instance, the lawsuit alleges, a department records custodian implied that a New Mexico Supreme Court Case “allows Defendant NMCD to make whatever public records it likes confidential through its statutory authority to adopt its own rules and regulations.” 

Cathy Ansheles, the former executive director of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and another steering committee member of the project, put the onus of inmates’ health and well-being directly on Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero.

“Our governor and her staff with the Corrections Department are not doing enough,” Ansheles said. “Attention needs to be paid to all New Mexico residents. People in prison are the loved ones of people in our communities.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Cathy Ansheles