Bernalillo County hopes to resolve jail lawsuit filed in 1995

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A lawsuit over conditions at the Bernalillo County jail is older than many of the inmates and staff, but county officials said they are hopeful an end to the litigation is in sight.

Bernalillo County officials, citing the independent monitoring of court-appointed experts, said that in 2018 they made significant progress with McClendon vs. the city of Albuquerque, a nearly 25-year-old lawsuit that aims to improve conditions at the local jail. The county now operates the jail, which was a city task at the time the lawsuit was filed.

A settlement between the county and plaintiffs in the case was reached in 2015 and sets 253 requirements for the county to make in order to complete the lawsuit. Statistics show the county after 2018 was compliant with 60 percent of those reforms. In 2017, the county had achieved compliance with 34.3 percent of the reforms. Compliance is determined by court-appointed experts who scrutinize the jail’s medical and psychiatric care as well as jail operations.

“In one year MDC almost doubled its compliance. It’s phenomenal,” said Taylor Rahn, an Albuquerque attorney hired by the county for the lawsuit. “This is something we’ve been slogging out for a long time, and now we’re making huge progress.”

Inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center take part in a book club in January 2012. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

County officials, in an interview with Journal reporters and editors last week, said they hoped to achieve compliance with all the terms of the settlement by the end of 2020 or earlier, and that would move the lawsuit into a self-monitoring phase.

Reports for the court-appointed experts give the county credit for recent progress and also show there is work left to be done.

For example, a inmate disciplinary policy hasn’t been fully implemented; an audit last year found numerous examples where the jail wasn’t in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act; and the jail does a good job at collecting use-of-force data but not at analyzing the information, according to the most recent monitor reports.

“We are pleased with the work that the County has done to reduce the population at MDC,” Albuquerque attorney Alexandra Freedman-Smith said in a statement issued on behalf of plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case. “While the County has made improvements at MDC, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the jail is safe and meets constitutional standards particularly in the areas of use of force on inmates, sexual assault, discipline, and staffing.

She noted that medical and mental health care has improved over time, but the jail has recently changed its medical provider, “so it remains to be seen whether these improvements will be sustained.

“We continue to work with the County to improve conditions for inmates and help achieve compliance with the settlement agreement,” the statement said. “We know there are numerous cases regarding improving jail and prison conditions throughout the country, but are unsure how many.”

The old Downtown jail, pictured in 1992, sometimes far exceeded its capacity of less than 600 inmates. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

The monitors’ reports show progress on many fronts, including an improvement of culture at the massive jail on the West Mesa, which has a capacity for about 1,950 inmates.

Robert Greifinger, the expert monitoring medical care at the jail, said that the county has been “working corroboratively and constructively” and said there’s been “vast improvement” from the county, according to his report.

Margo Fraiser, the jail operations monitor, noted in her most recent report there’s been “change in the culture” at the Metropolitan Detention Center. She gave positive marks on many aspects of the county’s efforts to comply with the settlement. She did point out that there have been sustained sexual misconduct allegations raised against jail staff, and she recommended that the jail make changes to sexual misconduct-related policies.

Psychiatry expert Dr. Jeffrey Metzner said in his most recent report in December that the county has either achieved “compliance” or “partial compliance” with the parts of the settlement that he monitors. He specifically complimented the staff and leadership within the jail’s Psychiatric Services Unit.

Rahn said much of the remaining work is related to sexual misconduct and inmate discipline.

“We’ve also implemented some changes at the facility to make sure we notice trends and take corrective action,” Rahn said.

The McClendon lawsuit was filed Jan. 10, 1995. At the time, the old Downtown jail, which had a capacity to hold less than 600 people, sometimes housed more than 900 inmates.

The suit is named after plaintiff Jimmy Lee McClendon, who at the time was an inmate who feared he might lose an eye due to poor medical care. McClendon died several years after the lawsuit was filed, but the case still bears his name. A variety of attorneys over the years have represented the plaintiffs.

Throughout the litigation, the county and attorneys for the plaintiffs have at times reached settlements that were later rescinded. Rahn said the county believes that the most recent settlement will be the final of the case.

It’s not clear how much money the county has spent on the lawsuit over the years because so many aspects of jail operations are indirectly connected to the lawsuit, said Julie Morgas Baca, the county manager. But the costs are significant.

The Metropolitan Detention Center in Southwest Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Candace Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the jail, said the county spends about $50,000 to $70,000 per month on plaintiffs’ attorney fees. She said since 2016 the county spent more than $1 million to train corrections officers on a new use-of-force policy, which was one of many requirements. The county has also spent more than $1.3 million on its own attorneys, expert witnesses and other costs associated with the lawsuit, she said.

And many other county expenses, such as inmate medical costs, have increased as the county works to become compliant with the lawsuit, Hopkins said.

Ralph Fernandez, the chief of the jail, said the money spent training officers on the new policy should improve safety for jail staff and reduce the amount of money the county spends on lawsuits that allege excessive force.

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