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.
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.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and The Charles Koch Institute, two groups that arguably have differing opinions on many things, appeared on the same same stage in Albuquerque on Wednesday to discuss civil asset forfeiture. New Mexico famously ended the practice of civil asset forfeiture earlier this year. Representatives from the two groups, along with a criminal defense attorney and a former director of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, discussed the importance of reforming states’ laws regarding asset forfeiture. Moderated by Paul Gessing, the director of the free market think tank Rio Grande Foundation, the panel discussed how New Mexico recently passed a law to change how and why law enforcement is allowed to take property. One particularly interesting member of the panel was Brad Cates, a former prosecutor, New Mexico lawmaker and one of the people responsible for creating a law that allowed police to seize property without a conviction or even an arrest.