May 14, 2021

Inhumane conditions and alleged sexual assault at NM women’s prisons

Many incarcerated women, often already traumatized from gender violence, potentially face re-traumatization once imprisoned in New Mexico through inhumane conditions and sexual assault, according to attorneys.

Lalita Moskowitz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the inhumane conditions run the gamut in New Mexico prisons—from infestations of rodents and freezing conditions at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility outside of Grants to infrastructure that is “completely falling apart” and inadequate reproductive health care at Springer Correctional Center in the small northern town of Springer. She said the two New Mexico women’s correctional facilities are “some of the oldest (correctional) buildings in the state.”

There have also been numerous sexual assault allegations at both facilities, Moskowitz said, and several sexual assault lawsuits. Steve Allen, director of the nonprofit New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, called the sexual abuse at Springer, “systemic.”

Many of the women housed in New Mexico’s correctional facilities are nonviolent offenders. Allen said that many women who are housed in WNMCF, which is a medium-level security facility, are “overclassified,” which means the inmates are put into a higher security prison than they need to be.

“We think that is especially true of women inmates. They are overclassifying large numbers of inmates here in New Mexico,” Allen said.

Moskowitz said the many women inmates are suffering mental health issues, significant poverty and, by overwhelming numbers, are already victims of gender-based violence.

“That trauma is a huge component to what leads people into these situations,” Moskowitz said.

A report produced in 2016 by a justice reform group called the Vera Institute of Justice stated that 86 percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual violence prior to entry; 77 percent experienced partner violence and 60 percent reported caregiver violence prior to incarceration.

Additionally, 60 percent of incarcerated women lacked full-time employment and 32 percent suffered significant mental illness before they were convicted of a crime.

The majority of incarcerated women are women of color, Moskowitz said. She said that because communities of color are “overpoliced” institutionalized racism compounds the issue.

“Communities of color end up in this system and get trapped in that system and whole communities are much more impacted by mass incarceration,” she said.

In addition, the number of incarcerated women is on the rise. Moskowitz said the increase took a dip in 2020, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, according to the nonprofit group The Sentencing Project, the number of women incarcerated nationally from 1980 to 2019 increased by 700 percent.

Moskowitz pointed to a number of causes, like national issues such as punitive drug policies and the criminalization of low-level offenses such as possession.

In New Mexico, there are felony possession laws and habitual offender statutes for those who already have a felony record which is another reason for increased rates, Moskowitz said. The opioid crisis is also on the rise and it is having “an increasing impact,” she said.

Once a person is in the system, it can be hard to get out of it, Moskowitz said. She said a third of the people in New Mexico prisons are there on technical parole or probation violations.

“Whether a person ends up back in the system depends on the parole officer assigned to them,” Moskowitz told NM Political Report. “The personality of that person can make a really big difference.”

She said some parole officers work with the women and men to help them succeed but there are some who might require a random drug test and, even if the person cannot make it due to a lack of flexibility at work, has them arrested for a parole violation.

Once the women are incarcerated, they are often re-traumatized inside the system, Moskowitz said. She said that in the two New Mexico women’s prisons, “there’s a real culture of permissive sexual abuse by correctional officers.”

Eric Harrison, public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Corrections, said that “whenever and wherever (sexual) allegations of misconduct are made, immediate action is taken and anyone found responsible is held accountable.”

But Moskowitz, who has filed multiple sexual assault lawsuits against the DOC, said correctional staff have ways of forcing women inmates to keep quiet.

“We see a lot of retaliation against women who report sexual abuse. It makes it less likely they feel safe to come forward,” she said.

In addition, Moskowitz said there have been cases where women made complaints and the correctional staff were not reprimanded or removed from their jobs. She said a couple of women inmates complained about a correctional officer inappropriately touching them. Another woman came forward a few months later alleging the same officer sexually assaulted her. But he wasn’t fired until three years later when he raped a woman, Moskowitz said.

She said there is a laxity of investigations into allegations and a “permissiveness,” which “leads to officers feeling like they can get away with this kind of thing.” She said officers can also accuse the women of falsely reporting sexual assault and if there is no camera evidence, it can be hard for the women to be believed.

“These women are in a really vulnerable place,” she said.

Rodents

In addition to the sexual assault, there are other ways in which the women imprisoned in New Mexico correctional facilities can be re-traumatized. A lawsuit launched earlier this year by two women, Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia, alleges a rodent infestation at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility that Allen, who is their attorney, called “grotesque.”

“It’s hard to overstate how disgusting it is,” Allen told NM Political Report.

He said his organization sent questionnaires to the women housed in WNMCF and dozens of inmates responded. His organization also collected more than three dozen sworn statements from inmates, he said.

Allen said women found dead rodents and rodent feces in their food. He said rodents crawled across the women’s feet while they were preparing food in the kitchen and the kitchen staff found rodent feces stuck to food trays. The center of the infestation is allegedly in the kitchen and the dining room where the inmates eat. He said inmates pulled nests filled with pink balls – rodent babies —  out of kitchen vents with regularity.

The rodents, both rats and mice, crawled into living quarters and ran across the women while they slept, he said.

“They are everywhere,” he said.

Garcia and Zapata were incarcerated at WNMCF for a couple of years and both were released in 2019. Both women worked in the kitchen at WNMCF.

Both women allege they became violently ill from food poisoning and both, after delays, required medical care. Garcia was so sick both she and Zapata reportedly thought she might die.

They both filed multiple complaints and spoke with supervisors but nothing changed, according to the complaint.

Harrison said he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Rodents chewed their way into dry food bags and boxes stored on site and the women allege they found live rodents in the food bags. 

Garcia alleges that she once began to eat a hamburger, only to discover rodent feces on the meat patty. A live rodent landed into a pot of stew and had to be fished out, according to the complaint. The two women allege they were forced to serve sausages that had been contaminated by rodents. They reported having to serve food after rodents had walked across it in the kitchen, after finding signs of contamination in storage and that there were rodents crawling in the dining room while the women ate. Garcia reported that she had the morning shift and found rodent feces on the floor, counters, food trays and other surfaces. The smell of rodent urine and feces was pervasive, according to the complaint.

The complaint says that an inspector from New Mexico Environment Department noted a rodent problem at the facility in his reports, but due to security reasons, NMED must notify the DOC ahead of time when he visits.

Garcia and Zapata said in their complaint that they and other women inmates had to work late into the night cleaning the kitchen in preparation for the NMED inspector’s visit.

Maddy Hayden, director of communications for NMED, said in an email that the Grants facility “provided documentation of regular pest control activities being conducted at the prison facility.” 

But the complaint says the two women stopped filing complaints because they “never got an adequate response.” 

In response to a request for a copy of the NMED inspector’s reports of the facility, Hayden sent the annual reports from the last two years, which were conducted remotely due to the pandemic. Those reports noted no violations in 2020 and Hayden said there would be an in-person follow up to the 2021 report, which was conducted over the phone.

But Zapata reportedly had to kill rodents in the kitchen every day as part of her job with a broom or mop. Garcia reported that she, too, had to kill a rodent by stomping on it. They reported glue traps that were often inadequate, including one with a bloody rodent leg left attached to it.

Allen said that one of the fears the women at the facility have is hantavirus, a respiratory disease which can be fatal and is carried by rodents. Cibola County, where WNMCF is located, has the fourth highest rate of hantavirus in New Mexico, Allen said.

“No one is doing anything about it. From our perspective, it’s incredibly dangerous,” Allen said.

Allen called the facility “a nightmare” and said being housed there is “so damaging.”

“You can’t treat these women like that. They made mistakes but they were victims themselves. We can’t treat other human beings like this. It’s painful. The trauma is as you’d expect it to be.” he said.

Crumbling facility

The Springer facility has its own problems, though it is slated to close as a correctional facility within the next year-and-a-half to three years. The DOC announced its preliminary plan to stop using Springer in late March.

Harrison said the state intends to repurpose the campus. He said it’s too early to say where the women inmates will be transitioned to but he said it will be done safely.

Springer, which was designed to be a boy’s camp and then repurposed into a women’s correctional facility in 2016, is in “crumbling” condition, according to both Moskowitz and Allen.

Both cited sewage coming up through pipes, including in the kitchen, a leaky roof and contaminated water. Moskowitz said another problem at Springer has been reproductive healthcare for the women housed there.

Moskowitz said one of her clients incarcerated at Springer, which is a minimum security prison, had unusual cramping and vaginal bleeding for a couple of years before she was allowed to see an appropriate specialist. The woman had cervical cancer and had to have a full hysterectomy, Moskowitz said.

“That’s not a one-off story,” Moskowitz said.

In addition, Moskowitz said there are fewer programs for women inmates once they are released from prison. She also said prisons are not “drug free” environments.

“We don’t have great mental health support,” Moskowitz said. “This whole cycle is very difficult once you’re in the system to stay out of it.”