Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal
Bernalillo County has agreed to pay almost a million dollars to three former female inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center who claimed they were forced to have sex with a corrections officer — who still works there — and an inmate.
A lawsuit filed by the women alleged MDC Sgt. Torry Chambers and inmate Anthony Townes, a former corrections officer at another facility, had become friends. It claimed Chambers and Townes helped each other commit the sexual assaults between 2008 and 2010.
Townes was a pre-trial detainee at the time of the events described in the complaint. He is now serving a 16-year state sentence for rapes committed in 2007 while he was a guard at Camino Nuevo Women’s Correctional Facility, a contract prison in Albuquerque. The women in that case won a $3 million lawsuit at trial in federal district court earlier this year.
Chambers was charged with criminal sexual contact and criminal sexual penetration but bonded out of jail while the case was being investigated and was never indicted. He remains a corrections officer at MDC, but without access to female inmates.
Chambers was on administrative leave from December 2010 to August 2011, according to jail spokeswoman Nataura Powdrell.
“We leave the criminal investigation to law enforcement, and without any criminal conviction, there’s nothing we could do. We did place him on modified duty,” she said.
District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Kayla Anderson said the case against Chambers was scheduled for presentation to a grand jury a year ago, but never got there.
“The U.S. Attorney’s (Office) is reviewing the case for possible federal prosecution, and we are waiting on that decision,” she said. “Therefore, there is no grand jury date set at this time.”
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez said Friday she could not comment on pending investigations.
The women plaintiffs will share an equal amount from the $925,000 settlement, which includes legal fees and costs. The individual defendants, who also include former jail supervisors, the former jail director and the former county manager, admit no liability in the settlement.
“Our hope is they use the money to start a new life and get themselves going on the right foot,” said attorney Matt Garcia, co-counsel with Mark Fine for the three women. “They all come from a fairly rough background and made some mistakes.”
The lawsuit said Chambers had raped one of the women once after he entered her cell and once after asking her to clean a cell in the infirmary, where Townes was working as an orderly. On both occasions, Townes kept watch for Chambers, the lawsuit said.
Another woman allegedly was raped after Chambers escorted Townes into the woman’s cell in the infirmary, and Townes raped her. Townes left the cell when Chambers signaled him with a whistle, the complaint alleged.
The same woman was raped in 2010 on a movie night by Chambers, after he summoned her to an enclosed area that functioned as a small library, the complaint says. During the rape, Chambers allegedly asked the woman what she thought about Townes raping her — she said it was horrible, but Chambers said Townes thought differently.
The third plaintiff alleged she was required to “pay (Chambers) back” for special treatment and favors to her and others in her pod, and that he had set it up so the woman was alone with him in the “library,” where he demanded she perform oral sex.
In July 2011, two of the plaintiffs were transported from the women’s prison in Grants to testify against Chambers in a grand jury proceeding and a jail supervisor tried to interrogate them, the lawsuit alleged.
When one of the women refused to answer questions, she was moved to an isolation cell on lockdown, it says, and her medication was withheld, causing severe mental and emotional hardship.
Fine and Garcia had sought compensatory and punitive damages in an amended complaint, which noted that an audit report on the jail in 2005 showed that it was chronically overcrowded and was not complying with the
American Correctional Association standards it had agreed to in settling an earlier, class-action lawsuit over unsafe conditions.
A U.S. Department of Justice report in 2008 found MDC had the third-highest rate of inmate sexual victimization in the nation, as well as the third-highest rate of nonconsensual sexual acts and staff-on-inmate sexual victimization, the lawsuit noted.
MDC Director Ramon Rustin said in an interview in connection with another jail lawsuit that new systems have been started to deter future occurrences of violence, but the jail remains overcrowded.
“We upgraded our reporting system so if there’s any incident at all, officers are ordered to investigate,” he said. “Every captain has to conduct (his) own investigation, capture video and put it in the report.
My concern is our population. We have 90 to 96 inmates per pod. (MDC was) built for 56 inmates per pod.”
Garcia said his own unscientific evidence shows things may be improving. “What I can tell you is that we don’t have as many cases coming to us from MDC as we used to,” he said.