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.
For Jessica Brown, whose husband Michael is an inmate at Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton, sending letters to her spouse is one of the primary ways she communicates with him. But starting Feb. 1, Jessica will have to send letters to her husband to a private corporation in Florida called Securus Technologies. There, Jessica’s letters will be opened and photocopied. Her husband, Michael, will be able to receive only the photocopied version.
New Mexico Department of Corrections notified inmates and their families of the change late last month.
As the coronavirus established a foothold in southern New Mexico’s Otero County Prison Facility in mid-May, state officials quietly moved 39 inmates out of the massive complex near the Texas border to another prison near Santa Fe. The inmates shared something in common: None was a sex offender. In the days before the 39 departed the massive correctiional complex where New Mexico’s only sex offender treatment program is housed, officials were still transferring sex offenders from other state prisons into Otero. It was a routine practice they had yet to stop, even though more than a dozen COVID-19 cases had already emerged elsewhere in the prison.
Six weeks later, 434 inmates — or 80% — have the virus, within a prison population that’s now entirely composed of people who, at one time or another, were convicted of a state sex offense. Three have died.
New Mexico appears to have bucked another national trend. Just one of the nearly 4,000 inmates and staff tested in the state’s 11 prisons is positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to results released by the state Corrections Department on Friday. The lone positive result, according to a news release from department spokesman Eric Harrison, was for a correctional officer at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, near the U.S. border with Mexico. The officer is now in self-quarantine at home, Harrison’s release said. Across the nation, prisons and jails have emerged as hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated populations and those who work to supervise them testing positive at alarmingly high rates in some places.
Many inmates suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the often fatal consequences of COVID-19, leaving prisons with some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. as the pandemic continues its march.