Sept 2 – Advocates for those incarcerated and for at least one inmate who have waged a so far unsuccessful effort to force an investigation into conditions at New Mexico’s Northeast Correctional Center say understaffing at the prison is leading to dangerous conditions and abusive treatment of inmates.
“Through numerous and unrelenting acts of dangerous and grotesque mismanagement [New Mexico Corrections Department] Y [Warden Mark Gentry] are deliberately sparking a growing pattern of gang violence in prisons,” inmate David Peterson wrote in a June 1 motion. “Such is a precursor to dangerous and possibly deadly prison riots and more violence.”
New Mexico Prisons and Jails Project Director Steven Allen said Thursday that the nonprofit organization, which advocates for better conditions for New Mexico prisoners, has received multiple complaints about conditions at Clayton Prison. , which had been run by a private prison operator before it was taken over by the state. about last year.
“What we’ve been hearing in conversations with family members and men incarcerated there … is that in some cases it’s gotten worse since the state took over,” Allen said. “It’s enough of a pattern that it’s impossible to go unnoticed.”
Allen said his group plans to file three complaints “in the very near future” about excessive use of force by staff against inmates.
“Men are being beaten there for no reason,” he said. “That’s one thing; there are also sexual harassment-type elements that show up regularly… [corrections officers] engaging in bizarre, sexually threatening behavior at the same time these guys are being beaten.”
On Thursday, District Court Judge Francis Mathew denied Peterson’s request to form a grand jury to investigate prison conditions. In denying the motion, the judge said he did so “not because it dismisses his concerns,” but because the state Department of Corrections had correctly argued that the judge did not have jurisdiction to grant Peterson’s request.
“Their concerns sound legitimate, but the defendant’s response is the one that prevails under the law,” the judge said at Thursday’s hearing.
Peterson’s motion alleges incidents of excessive use of force by guards against inmates, including cases in which inmates were pepper-sprayed in the face or beaten while handcuffed out of view of cameras. .
It also alleged that inmates had to be hospitalized after going on hunger strikes to protest poor conditions in the facility.
Peterson’s complaint linked rising tension inside the prison to staffing shortages, saying men are often locked in their cells and denied outdoor recreation, showers, visits and other activities. because there are not enough guards on duty.
During a night shift in May, according to his motion, there were only two guards at the prison between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In another case, Peterson told the judge Thursday, officials took more than a half hour to respond to repeated attempts by inmates to alert them that another inmate was having a medical episode.
When a guard finally arrived, he said, the person was a lone woman about 5 feet 2 inches tall and seemed afraid to enter the pod to investigate what was going on.
Analysts acknowledge staff shortage
The Third Quarter Performance Report from the Legislative Finance Committee for the Department of Corrections said Clayton Prison had the highest vacancy rate of all state prisons, with nearly 50 percent of correctional officer positions vacant.
As a result, according to the report card, state officials moved inmates elsewhere and, by May 2, had reduced the prison population to 280 inmates, about 45 percent of its 628-bed capacity.
Corrections spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said in an email Thursday that the prison has a population of 279 inmates and a staff vacancy rate of 52 percent.
Hart said the department could not comment on Peterson’s claims, and that the department did not set up an interview with Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya or comment on reports of poor conditions at Northeastern.
“NMCD has a process to address constituent concerns,” Hart wrote in an email.
“Our Constituent Services are staffed with knowledgeable and caring individuals who address the needs of those with questions. There is also a grievance process for inmate concerns within the facility,” he added.
‘They will not be happy until something happens’
A Las Cruces woman whose son is serving multiple life sentences at Clayton emailed The New Mexican multiple times this spring with her concerns about conditions there, citing “frequent closures often due to staffing shortages,” food that does not meet the standards of the contract, “medical services”. inconsistencies” and inadequate access to hygiene supplies.
“Many inmates are now on hunger strike due to the poor quality and quantity given to these people,” he wrote in April.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her son told her on Wednesday that the facility had been closed from Aug. 26 through Tuesday.
He forwarded to The New Mexican copies of emails he said he sent to prison officials and others, including state House Representative Antonio “Moe” Maestas D-Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico and the New Mexico Department of Corrections Office. Professional Norms, on the conditions inside the prison.
She said she only received one response from the Department of Corrections, directing her to tell her son to file complaints.
She said that he has done this repeatedly, without success.
The woman said Thursday that her son told her inmates at the prison had threatened violence over conditions.
“My son has told me many times: ‘They’re not going to be happy until something happens, they’re going to attack the guards and there’s going to be another Santa Fe.'”
he said, referring to the deadly riots that occurred in 1980 at the New Mexico Penitentiary outside the capital city.
Maestas said Thursday that he did not remember the email, which a date stamp shows he sent in April 2021.
But, the lawmaker said, he received a call Wednesday from a woman who said her “man” had been beaten inside the prison and was seeking legal representation to file a lawsuit against the state.
“I heard it’s melting,” the lawmaker said. “Staffing is a huge, huge problem.”
Maestas said high staff vacancies and resulting restrictions on inmates’ ability to exercise or access the educational program are sure to cause problems.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“It used to be overcrowded, now it’s understaffed… It’s just a horrible way to run a prison.”