The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico released a surveillance video that shows a group of incarcerated men beat another inmate while two guards look away at the Central New Mexico Corrections Facility in Los Lunas. The video appears to contradict the incident report filed by the guards regarding what took place. New Mexico Department of Corrections told NM Political Report that “an investigation has been initiated and two staff members have been placed on administrative leave.”
“There was an incident reported on August 10, 2022, at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility where a verbal disagreement led to a physical altercation between low-security level inmates actively participating in a work crew. NMCD takes the safety of staff and inmates very seriously and acknowledges the concerning nature of the video,” Carmelina Hart, public relations manager for NMCD, said through email. According to the incident report obtained by the ACLU-NM, a guard confronted the alleged victim, whose name has not been released, about refusing to work and the victim said he would turn violent on the guard.
The New Mexico Supreme Court today on Thursday issued a written opinion that upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit aimed at the state’s correctional department over the release of inmates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the opinion, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Michael Vigil wrote that a Santa Fe District Court judge was right to dismiss a lawsuit against the state that sought to release inmates as a precaution against COVID-19 outbreaks in state correctional facilities. The lower court judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs, who were eight inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, did not first exhaust all administrative appeal options before filing the suit. Vigil wrote that a “balance must be struck” that allows the New Mexico Corrections Department to address concerns through a grievance process but does not overburden the department.
“We cannot say that the entire inmate population of New Mexico may be considered to have exhausted administrative remedies simply because some unnamed class member/inmate tried to file a grievance,” Vigil wrote. “Similarly, we cannot say that the nearly 6,000 inmates must each individually show they have exhausted administrative remedies. Such a requirement for all class members could unduly burden the prison’s complaint system and delay resolution of grievances.”
The original suit asked the court to order the Corrections Department to lessen the population in state correctional facilities and to take further steps to protect inmates from COVID-19 by providing masks and testing and to better isolate inmates who became infected.
The high court also ruled that the administrative appeal requirement in cases like this is “satisfied as to an entire plaintiff class when one or more named class members have exhausted administrative remedies for each claim raised by the class,” but the court also noted that none of the plaintiffs in the case filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Corrections.
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.
Many incarcerated women, often already traumatized from gender violence, potentially face re-traumatization once imprisoned in New Mexico through inhumane conditions and sexual assault, according to attorneys. Lalita Moskowitz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the inhumane conditions run the gamut in New Mexico prisons—from infestations of rodents and freezing conditions at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility outside of Grants to infrastructure that is “completely falling apart” and inadequate reproductive health care at Springer Correctional Center in the small northern town of Springer. She said the two New Mexico women’s correctional facilities are “some of the oldest (correctional) buildings in the state.”
There have also been numerous sexual assault allegations at both facilities, Moskowitz said, and several sexual assault lawsuits. Steve Allen, director of the nonprofit New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, called the sexual abuse at Springer, “systemic.”
Many of the women housed in New Mexico’s correctional facilities are nonviolent offenders. Allen said that many women who are housed in WNMCF, which is a medium-level security facility, are “overclassified,” which means the inmates are put into a higher security prison than they need to be.
New Mexico’s top prison official said the state could eventually end its practice of contracting with private, for-profit firms to operate four of its 11 detention facilities, but the change won’t come anytime soon. The comments Friday by Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero followed an executive order earlier this week by President Joe Biden, who said the U.S. Department of Justice must end its reliance on private operators for federal prisons. Tafoya Lucero said she’s not philosophically opposed to the idea of getting rid of privately run prisons — but she doesn’t favor the state taking such action now.
“Conceptually, the existence of a for profit-entity that is utilized for incarceration is definitely something we are moving away from, that we desire to move away from,” she said in an interview Friday. “The point I really want to make is when it’s possible to do it, we should do it. But we can’t be put in a situation where we have to do it overnight.”
She said she couldn’t give a specific time frame for when it might be reasonable for the state to phase out privately run facilities.
“A lot of it comes down to what the budget is and being able to forecast what our resources in the state look like in the years to come,” she said.
Tafoya Lucero, who worked in the state prison system for 18 years before being appointed Cabinet secretary in 2019, told lawmakers on the New Mexico House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday she opposes a bill that would outlaw privately operated state prisons.
House Bill 40 would allow existing contracts to expire but prohibit renewals, which she said would result in a loss of 3,000 inmate beds.
As the number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in New Mexico continue to increase throughout the state and the state is halfway through a two week stay-at-home order, criminal justice advocates continue to push Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to do more to reduce prison populations.
There have been two attempts to get the courts involved, but the latest legal challenge, a class-action lawsuit, was dismissed last month. The judge in that case ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction to weigh-in because the inmate plaintiffs did not show that they had exhausted other remedies like an appeal through the New Mexico Department of Corrections.
Now, the plaintiffs—two advocacy groups and nearly a dozen inmates—are taking the issue to the Supreme Court for a second time, albeit with a different ask of the justices.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and compel Lujan Grisham and her corrections department to broaden their scope of how to limit prison populations in light of COVID-19. Those two groups ultimately failed to convince the New Mexico Supreme Court that inmates were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, and to compel Lujan Grisham and the Department of Corrections to do more than release inmates 30 days early.
For her part, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order that essentially expanded an already existing provision and allowed some inmates out 30 days before their scheduled release date. The qualifications for early release under Lujan Grisham’s executive order are narrow and prompted groups like the public defender’s office, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the ACLU to call for things like expedited parole for certain inmates and allowing some inmates to finish their sentence at home.
‘Getting really tricky to figure out where people can go’
Faegre Drinker, an international law firm, joined with Albuquerque-based attorney Ryan Villa to represent the plaintiffs in the class action suit that may be heard by the state’s high court.
The question before the court will not be whether or not the inmates are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment or even if the state has done enough to limit prison populations. Instead, justices would decide whether a district court judge can hear a case before all other options have been exhausted.
In a statement, Faegre Drinker attorney Chris Casolaro said time is running out for inmates facing the risk of COVID-19 as infection rates in prisons are rising, nearly every day.
“Coronavirus cases continue to surge in New Mexico, putting incarcerated people in far greater danger than they already were,” Casolaro said.
How’s this for a business plan? Buy hundreds of thousands of cloth face masks, mark up the prices and sell them to a bunch of state agencies for a tidy profit. That’s what New Mexico’s prison system did earlier this year during the state’s scramble to purchase supplies to protect against the spread of COVID-19, a review of state records shows. The New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) bought 371,000 cloth masks and sold them to at least a dozen other government agencies, making a minimum of $330,000 on the deals, according to state purchasing documents. Those funds were taxpayer dollars, and some came from New Mexico’s limited allotment of federal stimulus money, chipping away at the state’s resources to respond to the pandemic.
New Mexico public officials have made it clear they want anyone who has come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to get tested and self-quarantine until they get results back. Likewise, anyone who travels into the state must quarantine for 14 days or the duration of their stay.
But in prisons, quarantining means isolation and it isn’t pleasant, according to one group of inmates. Three men who were transferred from a state prison in Grants to the penitentiary in Santa Fe told NM Political Report they were subjected to the bare minimum in terms of sleeping and hygiene provisions while they were quarantined. They claim it took them days to get basic necessities like toilet paper and were treated like animals. But the Department of Corrections disputes those claims, and said they have surveillance tapes to prove it.
Tom Murray, who is serving out a years-long sentence for receiving a stolen vehicle and not registering as a sex offender, said he and three other inmates were transfered from the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants, to the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM) in Santa Fe on July 9.
Unless he gets an early release, Stanley Ingram is set to leave state prison in about 100 days. His parole plan, he said, includes going to live with family in Tucumcari and trying to put his Associate’s degree in wind energy technology to use. Besides his two year degree, he also earned two occupational certificates in the same field and a certificate for completing drug treatment while in prison. He said after spending years in and out of prison and struggling with substance abuse, he’s ready to leave his old life, and even his own self, behind.
“That old Stanley’s dead and gone,” Ingram said.
There’s little doubt that Ingram has already received second, third and fourth chances before he began his latest stint in state prison. According to court records, Ingram violated probation numerous times after he was convicted of a handful of felonies, including burglary and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Ingram’s record inside prison seems to show he’s made a turn, although there is enough in his prison disciplinary record to make his attempts at early release more difficult.
He was able to appeal most of the infractions he faced inside.
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.