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New Mexico inmates outline abuse in civil rights lawsuit

ALBUQUERQUE – More than a dozen inmates who were transferred after a riot at a New Mexico lockup in 2020 were allegedly abused and terrorized by correctional officers while being processed at another prison, marking what a watchdog group said Tuesday is the latest example of excessive force within the criminal justice system.

The allegations were outlined in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project and civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte.

The inmates claim their rights to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment were violated by a deputy warden and others at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.

The case comes as the federal government faces pressure from members of Congress to reform its own prison system after Associated Press investigations exposed widespread problems that included serious misconduct involving correctional officers and rampant sexual abuse at a California women’s prison.

In New Mexico, inmate populations have declined significantly over recent years, and the state is resuming control of what were previously private-run prisons. But advocates argue that things haven’t necessarily improved and a lack of independent oversight doesn’t help.

“If we could create a robust system of oversight like other states have, then this type of abuse wouldn’t happen as much,” said Steven Robert Allen, director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project. “Would it completely solve the problem? Of course not. But it would be a big step in the right direction and an obvious step.”

Allen said individual instances of abuse happen frequently in New Mexico but are often hard to prove. The difference is this case involved a large number of people at the same time with a corresponding story, he said.

While not named as a defendant, the New Mexico Corrections Department would be responsible for paying any damages that might result. The department declined to comment about the specific allegations, but spokesman Eric Harrison said Tuesday that the department is committed to the safety of all inmates in its care.

“We maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding any and all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Please let me be clear — we absolutely will be investigating these 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.”

Deputy Warden Joe Lytle at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility could not be reached for comment Tuesday as the phones went unanswered. Lytle is among the defendants.

Many of the inmates listed as plaintiffs have extensive criminal records. About half of them remain in custody and others are now on parole.

New Mexico’s history includes one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots, when a dozen guards were held hostage in February 1980. Some were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted as rioting prisoners killed 33 of their fellow inmates during a clash that included beheadings, amputations and burned bodies.

Fueled by a combination of overcrowding and poor conditions, the riot lasted 36 hours. It led to extensive reforms within the state’s prison system.

Still, New Mexico is one of many states without an independent oversight program for its corrections system. Legislation aimed at creating an ombudsman stalled in 2021.

About 15 states have independent mechanisms for dealing with complaints from inmates or for assessing conditions within the prisons. New Jersey has what supporters call one of the strongest oversight structures in the U.S., while similar programs have been established in recent years in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said abuses continue to be widespread in jails and prisons across the U.S. because “these facilities operate behind closed doors and closed walls” and it usually takes public records requests from investigative journalists, lawmakers or advocates to get information.

“Prisons and jails just oftentimes operate in a complete black hole. It’s important to have the transparency and spotlight on the problems and the abuses,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, the first group of plaintiffs was taken to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in March 2020 after a riot at a state lockup about 80 miles away that followed the death of an inmate. One inmate was injured during the uprising and the prison was damaged. The second group was transported a couple weeks later.

The complaint says the inmates were subjected to “an abusive welcome committee” that included name-calling and threats of physical violence by guards.

Some of them endured strip searches that the lawsuit described as abusive and punishing. Certain inmates also had their heads forcibly shaved, which left some with bloody wounds on their scalps.

“The use of sexually humiliating strip searches coupled with the forcible shaving of plaintiffs’ heads while on their hands and knees with their heads in a trash can was designed to sexually humiliate, intimidate and terrify plaintiffs,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit goes on to detail accusations of excessive force despite no active security threat. It described the actions by prison authorities as malicious and cruel, saying the inmates suffered physical and psychological injuries in violation of their constitutional rights.

Allen and Coyte described the behavior by the guards as sadistic, saying a lawsuit was filed a decade ago over similar conduct involving some of the same defendants so corrections personnel should know better.

“This sort of behavior does cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money litigating a lawsuit like this,” Coyte said, “so that’s disappointing to see it happening again.”