Inmates at the Springer Correctional Center watch TV in January. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo
Representatives of New Mexico prison inmates are once again claiming in federal court that state corrections officials are violating terms of court settlements intended to prevent crowded conditions like those that contributed to the deadly 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe.
However, a Corrections Department spokesman insisted Thursday that the state is in compliance with the Duran Consent Decree, which guarantees each inmate at least 60 square feet of “living and sleeping space.” By comparison, an average residential bathroom has about 40 square feet of space.
Prisoner representatives who monitor compliance with the deal claim in a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court that state officials are violating the agreement at four state prisons where they have reduced inmate space by adding extra bunks to single cells, crowding prisoners into small dormitories or housing prisoners in spaces not intended for living.
State officials knew of the violations in at least one of the facilities, says the court petition, and were ordered to remove the extra bunks no later than October 2016 but still haven’t done so.
The lawsuit, which names Gov. Susana Martinez as the lead defendant, asks the court to find the state in violation of the 1991 agreement and a subsequent 2016 settlement, and to order remedies such as removal of extra bunks within 30 days.
The governor’s spokesman, Michael Lonergan, on Thursday referred questions to Corrections Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh, who said in a written statement that the claims made in the complaint are either wrong or have been addressed.
“We are very confident that we are in compliance with Duran,” Mahesh said. “The Springer Correctional Facility is a Level 2 facility and does not fall under the Duran decree. The Western New Mexico Correctional Facility’s double bunking issue was addressed and resolved last year. We no longer house inmates in the day rooms at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility and the Otero County Correctional Facility’s square footage per inmate complies with Duran.”
According to the lawsuit, the state began the practice of “double-celling” inmates in single-occupancy cells at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility near Grants as far back as 1999.
A February 2016 inspection “revealed that Defendants had retrofitted every cell” at the facility “by bolting one or two additional bunks to the walls above the original beds,” says the complaint, which asks a federal judge to find that the state is in violation of population control provisions of the 1991 agreement.
The Western New Mexico Correctional Facility has since become an all-women facility.
According to the complaint, the department also is violating settlement provisions at the Springer Women’s Facility, the other state prison that holds only women inmates. The facility in Springer, originally used to house juvenile male offenders, was converted to house adult males before it became a female facility last fall.
“Where [the New Mexico Corrections Department] once housed around two hundred men,” the complaint says, “more than 400 women live in dormitories with stacked bunk-beds so close together you can hold hands.”
According to the lawsuit, Corrections Department officials have taken the position that Springer is not subject to the settlement agreement because it is a “minimum custody level facility” that only houses inmates classified as Levels 1 and 2 on a six-level scale. The Duran decree and related agreements apply only to medium- and maximum-security inmates.
But prison monitors — including Albuquerque lawyers Alexandra Freedman Smith, Philip B. Davis and Peter Cubra, and Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli — say that is false based on an analysis of the physical layout of Springer, security measures taken there and classification levels of inmates there.
The lawsuit says that when inmate representatives toured Springer in February, “they observed that the entire facility is surrounded by double fences topped with razor wire. Springer also has an armed vehicle patrol. The physical security of the facility is thus consistent with the Defendants’ standards for the custody level appropriate as a medium security facility.”
The complaint says Springer multiple times a week is put on “lockdown,” under which inmates’ movements are restricted, which is consistent with a medium-security facility.
“Springer also houses numerous inmates who have been classified as “Level III,” according to the complaint, which says that since the facility became a women’s prison in October, 88 Level 3 inmates have been housed there.
“Springer is severely overcrowded and understaffed, which are precisely the conditions the … Settlement Agreement were intend to prevent,” the complaint says. “The majority of women are housed in eight dormitories, each of which houses up to 48 women in bunk beds.”
At the time of their visit, the lawyers contend, the facility was nearly at its capacity of 424 women and lockdowns sometimes resulted in up to 48 women being confined to the dormitory for an entire day.
A high personnel vacancy rate — about 43 percent, according to the complaint — means a single guard patrols two dormitories, walking back and forth between them.
The lawyers for the inmates say they have asked officials for measurements at Springer that would allow them to calculate the square footage per person, but the state still has not provided the information.
The complaint says state corrections officials also are violating population controls at the Otero County Prison Facility, which is near the state’s southern border and holds primarily sex offenders.
There, the complaint says, inmates in one unit are housed in a dorm-style arrangement that allows only between 42.14 square feet and 52.68 square feet per inmate.
Correspondence attached to the complaint indicates Corrections Department officials have disputed the formula for determining square footage per inmate with monitors in the Otero County facility, with the parties arguing over whether bathrooms and day-room space can be considered in the calculation.
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