3:43 pm EDT, Monday, August 24, 2020
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a group of criminal defense lawyers claim in a lawsuit filed Monday that state officials aren’t doing enough to protect the health of inmates amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The complaint alleges that the government is refusing to enforce its own mandates for social distancing, heightened hygiene practices and quarantine measures. It cites violations of the state constitution, suggesting that prison conditions “have become so intolerable as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”
“The state’s failure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons has already resulted in tragic loss of life and immense human suffering,” Paul Haidle, executive director at the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said in a statement. “People behind prison walls are living in fear and cannot afford to wait another day for conditions to improve.”
The lawsuit lists nine inmates as plaintiffs who are being held at state lockups for various reasons including alleged probation violations. Most of them are women and all but two people listed in the complaint are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
The lawsuit seeks immediate relief aimed at protecting the constitutional rights of all inmates in state custody.
Corrections officials did not comment directly on the pending litigation but said there have been just over 500 confirmed cases among state inmates since the pandemic began, with 11,765 tests being done so far. Only 25 cases remain active, according to the department’s latest count.
Advocates were unsuccessful earlier this year when they brought a similar case before the New Mexico Supreme Court. They argued that the state put people at risk by not substantially reducing the prison population. The court denied the petition, ruling that the groups could not prove the state’s actions were deliberate or intentional.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in early April had already issued an executive order directing the state Corrections Department to compile a list of incarcerated individuals who are eligible for early release. Under the order, inmates who are within 30 days of release would be eligible as long as they are not serving time for felony drunk driving, domestic abuse or assault on a peace officer and are not sex offenders.
As Friday, 143 individuals have been released under the governor’s order, said department spokesman Eric Harrison.
He said efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been put in place at the state’s 11 prison facilities. For example, all new intakes are quarantined for 14 days and immediately tested for the virus.
The department plans to test 5% of staff every week at each facility for the foreseeable future. State corrections and health officials also will continue satellite testing of the inmate population to include high-risk individuals and new intakes.
The weekly hygienic supply for every inmate also has been doubled, Harrison said.
State data also shows more than 800 COVID-19 cases have been reported among inmates in federal custody within the state since the pandemic began.
In all, health officials reported Sunday that there have been nearly 24,400 confirmed cases statewide and 745 deaths in New Mexico related to the coronavirus. That includes four deaths among the population at the state contracted prison in Otero County.