ACLU-NM: Assault shows need for prison oversight

Oct. 18—A video that shows four inmates attacking another state prisoner in full view of two guards who failed to intervene prompted an hourslong debate among lawmakers on how to reform what some critics call a culture of corruption and dysfunction inside New Mexico's prison system.

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, and civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte told members of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Monday the recorded incident took place Aug. 10 in an empty housing unit at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas.

Coyte — who has obtained multimillion-dollar settlements from the state on behalf New Mexico inmates — said the video signals an urgent need to revisit legislative reforms that failed in the past. If the guards in the video, including a captain, seemed unconcerned about the potential repercussions of failing to protect the attacked inmate, he said, it was because they knew Corrections Department officials would protect them from consequences.

"He knows there is a video, and he does not care," Coyte said. "He knows he's untouchable and the video won't see the light of day. ... He knows he's not going to be accountable.

"Nobody wants to address the elephant in the room, which is corruption and misfeasance," Coyte added.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she asked Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero about the video and was told the matter was "under investigation."

Tafoya Lucero did not respond to a request for an interview.

Agency spokeswoman Carmelina Hart confirmed the incident was under investigation. She wrote in an email Monday, "Safety of inmates and staff is of the highest priority for the Department."

She added, "Preliminary results of the investigation revealed that there were no significant injuries, and no one had to be transported due to injuries. The Correctional Officers involved were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation."

Coyte recommended the Legislature take a two-pronged approach to prison reform, with one piece of legislation creating independent oversight and another addressing conditions for guards and inmates, with education and training components.

The oversight body should have "golden key access" to prison facilities and documents, Coyte said, but no connection to the Corrections Department or authority beyond issuing reports.

Potential prison reform legislation would get more support if it was targeted in part at reducing legal expenses, he said.

"Nobody cares about inmates, in the general sense," he said. "But they care about money."

The Corrections Department has paid about $8 million to settle 74 lawsuits since 2018, Jones told legislators, and most of the cases involved civil rights violations. That figure does not include legal expenses borne by the state, which often are significantly more than the amount paid out in settlements.

ACLU-NM is working on a lawsuit against the state with a private attorney who represents the inmate attacked in the video, Jones confirmed Monday.

Jones spent a total of about a decade in New Mexico prisons in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He told lawmakers there is a disconnect between what they hear from Corrections Department officials and his own experience.

"Every time I hear the New Mexico Corrections Department leadership come to a committee hearing, they paint this really rosy picture of what takes place behind the walls, and it makes me cringe," he said. "I know [inmates] aren't getting programing. ... They're not getting the tools they need to better themselves."

Jones and Coyte said the Corrections Department also lacks a transparent representation of staffing shortages.

Some committee members spoke with emotion about the complex nature of the problems in the state's prisons.

Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, asked the committee not to discount the trauma endured by prison workers.

"I'm pretty sure that 90 percent of the correctional officers that work in the state of New Mexico are suffering from [PTSD] and should probably get compensated," he said.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, called the video "extremely disturbing" and asked Coyte if prison conditions put the state at risk of the U.S. Department of Justice imposing its own oversight or someone filing a lawsuit that could result in court-ordered monitoring.

Coyte said yes, but he is more concerned about the risk of a prison riot.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena D-Mesilla, said in an interview Monday after the hearing she is working with ACLU-NM and might sponsor a bill creating an independent panel to oversee the Corrections Department and a transparent rule-making process for the agency.

Unlike other departments, Cadena said, Corrections does not have a public process for creating policies.

She said the state owes it to inmates, lawmakers and the public to be clear about what the rules are "so people can ask real questions about those rules and our obligations when we lock someone up."

"What we've seen in that video is that they are routinely covering up all sorts of things that happen behind those bars," she said.

Two bills that proposed prison oversight in 2021 died without becoming law.