NM Prison and Jail project launches, files first lawsuit against the state

A new, local non-profit organization aiming to advocate for the civil rights of those incarcerated in New Mexico launched Thursday and announced a lawsuit against the New Mexico Corrections Department. 

The New Mexico Prison and Jails Project announced that it filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the state Corrections Department of violating the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). 

Steven Robert Allen, formerly a policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, is the project’s director. He said the group’s first lawsuit stemmed from an inquiry to find out more about how the Corrections Department procedurally handles records requests. 

“I think it’s particularly ironic that we have this lawsuit against the Corrections Department for violating IPRA because all we were doing was asking them for their policies and practices for what they’re doing to comply with IPRA,” Allen said. 

Some of the group’s steering committee was present at a virtual news conference announcing the formation of the group and its first lawsuit. Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte is one of those steering committee members and said on Thursday that one of the goals of the project is to offer representation in civil rights cases where there is normally a dearth of available lawyers. 

“This project, the PJP, is designed to fill that gap, to fill that void and to create an an environment where we can bring multiple lawsuits against the prison or jail system to create change, to bring publicity,” Coyte said. 

The IPRA lawsuit the PJP filed this week argued that the response by the Department of Corrections to the project’s records requests “were so fundamentally inadequate and unreasonable that they are the equivalent of not responding to the [records request] at all.”

Coyte said getting adequate records from prisons and jails is key to making sure inmates and detainees are being treated fairly and properly. 

“I think everyone knows that prisons and jails are secretive places. The public doesn’t really have an awareness of what happens behind the closed doors of the prison and jail,” Coyte said. “And thus abuse is allowed to occur without great check or balance on things because the public eye isn’t there.”

The suit alleges that an attempt to obtain records regarding legal complaints filed against Corrections for violating IPRA as well as communications about IPRA policy changes, ended with deflections by department officials who cited various parts of statute and records law exemptions.

Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission

Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.

DA: Allegations of police tampering with video warrant federal investigation

Kari Brandenburg, the outgoing Bernalillo County district attorney, said Monday a federal “criminal investigation is absolutely warranted” into allegations that Albuquerque Police Department employees have tampered with videos that show police shootings. Brandenburg said Monday in a telephone interview she is sending documentation detailing the allegations to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office would not say Monday whether the agency planned to open an inquiry based on the district attorney’s referral. But spokeswoman Elizabeth Martinez wrote in an email “the Justice Department takes seriously all referrals from state and local prosecutorial authorities.”

The allegations

Reynaldo Chavez, the police department’s former records supervisor, swore out an affidavit as part of an ongoing civil right rights lawsuit against APD in which he alleged that department employees had altered or deleted videos showing the events surrounding two controversial shootings by officers in 2014.

NM swims against criminal justice reform tide

The aftermath of a heinous crime that saw a career criminal kill a Rio Rancho police officer is sparking talk of tougher crime laws. Next week, state lawmakers in the interim Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee will hear testimony on a bill to add crimes to New Mexico’s existing “three strikes” law, which assigns mandatory life in prison sentences to convicts of three violent crimes. Yet the local legislative doubling down on “tough on crime” laws—two Republican state representatives are proposing changes that would tighten New Mexico’s three strikes law—comes at a time with strong national momentum in the opposite direction. And it’s Republicans with national ambitions that, in many cases, have been making headlines for this. “Former [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry is going around the country bragging that he closed three prisons,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who supports criminal justice reform.