June 27, 2021

Former inmate sues Corrections Department for negligence

A former inmate is suing the New Mexico Corrections Department and some of its employees for allegedly endangering the man’s life while transporting him and others in an unair-conditioned vehicle in 2019.

Lawrence Lamb, 61, filed the suit last week in Santa Fe state district court. The suit alleges that on June 21, 2019 Corrections Department officers loaded him and seven other inmates into a transport van to carry them 300 miles from the Los Lunas-based Central New Mexico Correctional Facility to the Clayton-based Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility. Due to a high-rate of speed, sometimes as much as 90 miles an hour, the rear passenger tire blew out and a metal object blew through the plywood floor and struck Lamb in the leg, the complaint states.

Lamb’s lawyer, Steven Allen, the director of New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, said getting hit with a bolt was “the least of his concerns” after what allegedly came next.

The officers pulled the van over onto the side of I-25 near the town of Rowe, according to the complaint. The officers turned off the air-conditioning and ignored the inmates, according to the complaint. The inmates complained and the correctional officer turned the air-conditioning back on but the van was still hot inside for the two hours they waited by the side of the road, according to the complaint.

Then a replacement van arrived and officers loaded the inmates into it. The replacement van had no ventilation and was made of metal with a metal bench for the inmates to sit on and the air conditioning vent was visibly inoperable, the complaint states. Officers began the return journey to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, driving the replacement van and the inmates became so overheated that they begged the officers for help, according to the complaint.

Lamb became so dehydrated he stopped sweating and the inside of the metal van began to drip with condensation from the inmates’ sweat, according to the complaint. The inmates were never offered water or other hydrating liquid during the trip, the complaint states.

The officers ignored the inmates’ pleading for help but stopped at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe where the inmates were checked out by medical staff and placed into holding cells for a brief period, the complaint alleges.

A short time later that day, officers loaded the same inmates back into the same replacement van and assured them that the air conditioning had been repaired, according to the complaint.

The officers stopped the van before leaving the penitentiary grounds to try to reattach the air conditioning ducts because they still weren’t working properly but continued on despite the fact that the air conditioning only blew hot air onto the inmates, the complaint states.

Lamb thought for the second time that day he might die from the extreme heat, the complaint states. Condensation from the inmates’ sweat formed on the inside of the van, one inmate threw up and another fell to the floor, apparently unconscious, according to the complaint.

The officers did not stop to check on the inmates during the drive from Santa Fe to Los Lunas, the complaint states. Medical personnel checked Lamb and the other inmates l upon arrival at CNMCF and he was found to be suffering severe dehydration and in need of medical treatment, according to the complaint.

But, though he was placed into a medical holding cell at CNMCF for three days, he was given no additional water to drink other than what he received during meals and had no sink in his cell, according to the complaint.

He suffered very bad headaches and other physical symptoms from the ordeal, according to the complaint.

Allen said this is a “too familiar story.”

“They thought they were going to die,” Allen said of the inmates.

Allen said that one of the shocking aspects of the alleged case is that just a few months before, in April 2019, former inmate Isaha Casius won a $2 million lawsuit against the state Corrections Department for having been left in a hot van in 2013.

“That should have given them some very clear indication that they had to be careful about things like this,” Allen said.

The Corrections Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Allen said Lamb is suing for negligence. The state has a duty to maintain and operate vehicles in a safe way and ensure air conditioning in the vehicle, he said.

But, Lamb’s constitutional rights have also been violated, Allen said. He said the Corrections Department has a duty to make sure the prisoners in their care are not exposed to dangerous risks to their health and a duty to provide medical care.

“Putting someone in a metal box in an unair-conditioned van in New Mexico in the summer is an extremely dangerous threat to safety. I wouldn’t let my dog sit in a car for more than a minute in an unair-conditioned car,” he said.