BernCo settles 3 MDC lawsuits for a total of $1.1M

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The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Three former inmates of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center who alleged in separate lawsuits that they had been brutalized by corrections officers, including controversial jail supervisor Eric Allen, have settled their cases for a combined $1.1 million.

Bernalillo County entered into those settlements in the months and weeks leading up to Allen being indicted by a grand jury on a felony count of aggravated battery causing great bodily harm. Allen’s indictment, issued earlier this month, stems from a December 2015 incident in which he allegedly ordered guards to “hurt” state prison inmate Joe Ray Barela, who corrections officers said was being belligerent.

Allen has been on paid administrative leave since January 2016, although county officials have initiated the process to fire him.

The county released the three settlement agreements to the Journal late Thursday in response to requests under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. It’s unclear whether the county paid the settlements out of its own coffers or whether insurance covered the cost.

County officials declined to comment on the settlements.

Neither the county nor any of the other defendants admit liability in the settlement agreements, saying instead that they were settling the lawsuits as a compromise to avoid further expense of litigation.

Barela settled his excessive force lawsuit against the county, Allen and others on Nov. 30 for $375,000.

Allegations made in the case are disturbing. Among other things, the lawsuit alleged that Barela was hit with blasts of pepper spray, threatened with a Taser, subjected to multiple pain techniques and that Allen even picked Barela up by his ear and slammed his face into a nearby cabinet.

The tactics were witnessed by medical staff, who feared that Barela would be tortured further when he was taken away. Allen denied the allegations made in the lawsuit.

On Oct. 16, Susie Chavez settled her case against the county, Allen and others for $500,000.

Chavez, whose confrontation with jail officers was captured on video and spawned national attention and a local protest, alleged a culture of excessive force at MDC. In the video, Chavez sobs and shrieks in pain as jail officers shock her with a stun gun, twist her wrist and spray Mace in her face because she would not stop crying.

And on Sept. 28, Justin Allen, no relation to Eric Allen, settled his lawsuit against the county, Allen and others for $250,000.

Justin Allen alleged that Eric Allen used an inflammatory spray and a Taser weapon on him when he asked for his antidepressants and breathing medications.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca has previously told the Journal that she supports the MDC administrators’ proposed disciplinary action to terminate Eric Allen’s employment.

“I am eager to see this case come to a close for the benefit of everyone involved,” she told the Journal in a statement last week.

Daniel Macke, the Albuquerque attorney who represented Eric Allen in the three lawsuits, didn’t respond to a request for comment late Thursday afternoon.

But Justin Allen’s attorney, Charles Lakins, said, “On behalf of Justin Allen, we are glad to see that justice is prevailing. Eric Allen’s indictment is appropriate, and we believe that the merits of all of these cases will show he should not only be fired from Bernalillo County as a corrections officer, but he should also be behind bars for what he did to these people … None of this should have happened to any of these people.”

Albuquerque attorney Matthew Coyte, who represented Chavez, told the Journal that MDC has a long-standing culture of staff violence.

“Medical personnel have witnessed many incidents such as Susie’s, but all too often they have been afraid to speak out against them,” Coyte said. “For years management have also been aware of the problem but have failed to abate it. This is in large part due to the union contract which makes it almost impossible to take violent people such as Allen and discipline them appropriately.”

Coyte said that until the brutal culture has been addressed, “MDC will continue to pay out large amounts in settlements such as these. More importantly, people who go through the system will continue to come out more damaged than they went in, ultimately making this a public safety issue.

“We need to take a whole new approach on how to run our jails, such that staff and inmates are not subjected to these repetitively traumatizing events.”

Allen was fired in 2008 after being accused of punching an inmate in the head twice. The union argued Allen had been hit first, and in 2009 an independent arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate him, determining that Allen’s reaction was reasonable and in keeping with his training.

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