April 6, 2022

Lawsuit alleges inmates at a state-run prison were terrorized, sexually humiliated and treated with violence

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

A group of 14 men transported to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Valencia County in 2020 allege they were terrorized, sexually humiliated and forced to endure violence.

The former inmates are suing former CNMCF assistant warden Joe Lytle and eight other corrections officers who were allegedly present or participated in the incident.

Eric Harrison, public information officer for the state Correction Department, said that the department cannot comment on “the specific allegations due to active litigation.”

“Please know that NMCD is committed to the safety of all inmates within our care and we maintain a zero tolerance policy regarding any and all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” he wrote in a statement.

Harrison also said the department will be “investigating the allegations thoroughly and will take action to make certain that any staff involved in any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior are held accountable to the highest level.”

Lytle was involved in a similar lawsuit against him and others working for the department in 2011. That civil case, which led to a $750,000 settlement, involved Lytle forcing men at the Los Lunas facility to sit naked “nuts to butts” in a row for hours.

Steven Allen, one of the plaintiff lawyers and director of the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, said he doesn’t believe this is an isolated incident.

“We’re receiving letters from people incarcerated and emails and phone calls from their loved ones. The allegations in the complaint are not unique in any way. It happens regularly. There are more complaints at the Los Lunas facility than others, but it happens,” Allen said during a press conference.

According to the complaint, Department of Corrections employees transported two groups of male inmates to the CNMCF in Los Lunas in 2020 and inflicted what Michael Coyte, also a plaintiff attorney for the case, referred to as a “sadistic welcoming committee.” The men were forced to spread their butt cheeks while enduring degrading sexual insults and strip searches by the defendants, according to the suit.

The correctional officers told the men to not look up. If they did, the officers would hit, slap or kick the men, according to the complaint. Coyte said this made it more difficult to identify the guards involved.

While the incident took place, Lytle appeared to be making a video with his cell phone according to the complaint. But Coyte said that when he made a public records request, the department denied the existence of any video.

According to the complaint, correctional officers forced each of the men to a violent head shaving that began with the guards forcibly placing the inmates’ heads onto the rim of a trashcan and pushing down so hard that they choked. The officers shaved the men’s hair, regardless of whether it was needed and cut so violently that most of the men had cuts on their scalps, according to the complaint.

The corrections officers did not sterilize the scissors used to shave the men’s heads, even despite the equipment becoming bloody and despite the risk of causing Hepatitis C and other blood-borne illnesses, according to the complaint.

Corrections officers allegedly spoke to one African American man using degrading racist terms during the incident. Because the plaintiff is also Muslim, he objected to having his head shaved for religious reasons but the officers shaved his head with greater violence the more he objected, according to the complaint. Officers also allegedly disregarded a man who is Native American when he protested having his hair cut because he was letting his hair grow as part of a Tribal grieving ritual for his dead brother. Despite the Native American man’s protests, correctional officers violently shaved his head and told him this was their “version of scalping” him, according to the complaint.

Officers allegedly used one inmate’s head as a battering ram to open a door and injured the eye of another inmate when slamming him into a fence. Officers also disregarded a man who said he suffered from seizures and forced him through a violent head shaving and a sexually degrading strip search, according to the complaint.

Corrections officers repeatedly told the men they should not tell the facility’s nurse and in some cases threatened further violence if they did, according to the complaint.

Coyte said he suspects that most of the corrections officers named in the complaint still work for the department. Harrison confirmed that the named defendants do still work for NMCD.

Coyte said the plaintiffs named “only a handful of individual employees,” but, many corrections officers were involved in the incident.

“Our clients were instructed to keep their eyes down. Not to look at correctional officers in the face. If they popped their heads up, they were immediately beaten when they did so,” Allen said. 

Coyote said that suing the individual employees is the only way to seek redress.

“We want to see some accountability,” Coyte said.