April 12, 2023

Former inmate files lawsuit against Clayton prison facility

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

A former inmate at Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton filed a civil suit on Tuesday alleging that correctional officers at the facility attacked, abused, sexually assaulted him and made a racist remark that made him fear for his life last year.

A lawyer for the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, a nonprofit group working toward prison reform in the state, filed the suit on behalf of Carl Berry on Tuesday. Berry is suing for damages, alleging his civil and constitutional rights were violated on April 15, 2021 when a group of correctional officers beat him, pepper sprayed him repeatedly in the face, sexually assaulted him and made a racist remark relating to the death of George Floyd, according to the complaint.

Carmelina Hart, public relations manager for the New Mexico Corrections Department, said in an email that the department had not been served.

“The New Mexico Corrections Department has not been served and is unable to comment on pending litigation,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, the incident began when a group of corrections officers pulled another inmate out of a cell and began sexually assaulting that inmate while yelling disparaging remarks at him. Berry and other inmates could see the attack and yelled at the inmate to keep him calm, the complaint states. Berry said he believed the officers were trying to provoke the inmate so they could justify using force against him.

The officers returned the inmate to his cell, then entered into Berry’s neighboring cell and physically battered a second inmate who had also urged the first inmate to remain calm, according to the complaint. The complaint recounts the following series of events: officers then entered Berry’s cell. They yelled at him. One officer pushed his crotch into Berry’s bottom against his will. The officers beat Berry, forcibly held him on the floor and repeatedly pepper sprayed his face. While Berry lay on the floor, one of the officers put his boot onto Berry’s back and allegedly said, “Let me guess, you can’t breathe.”

The criminal trial of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin was taking place from March 8 until April 20, 2021, which is during the time of the alleged incident against Berry. Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder and other charges in the criminal case of the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota Black man, in 2020 because Chauvin placed his foot on Floyd’s back and held him there despite Floyd saying that he couldn’t breathe.

Berry felt that the comment meant he would be the next Black man to die at the hands of law enforcement and that the officer was threatening Berry’s life, according to the complaint.

The officers then picked Berry up, rammed his head into a heavy metal door to open it, placed him into solitary confinement, stripped him of his clothes and ordered him to bend over and cough several times to humiliate and degrade him, according to the complaint.

When officers allowed Berry to take a shower, the water was so hot he could not place his face under it, according to the complaint. He had to get his shirt wet and use it to remove the pepper spray from his face, the complaint states.

Berry filed a formal complaint with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, but he later received a form letter telling him his complaint was unsubstantiated, according to the complaint. But, Berry’s attorneys filed a public records act to obtain the report of the investigation and, while the document was heavily redacted, they have reason to believe the investigation found some officer misconduct, NMP&J lawyer Mallory Gagan said.

The officers did not carry cameras into the units with them when the alleged attack took place, which Steven Allen, executive director of NMP&JP, said is a violation of New Mexico Corrections Department policy.

Barron Jones, a member of NMP&JP, said this case “points to broader systemic issues” in the state’s prison system.

“At best, prisons are opaque. At their worst, secretive. This shines a light on what goes on in these facilities. We lock people up, over work the officers creating ripe conditions for these incidents to occur,” Jones said.