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Ex-inmate left in hot prison van wins $2M lawsuit

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A former New Mexico prison inmate was awarded a $2 million verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the state Corrections Department for being left in a hot prison transport van in July 2013.

A federal jury ruled in favor of 36-year-old Isaha Casias on Thursday after a four-day trial in Roswell.

Casias filed a state court lawsuit against the department and corrections officers Taracina Morgan and Herman Gonzales in October 2015, but the case was later moved to federal court.

The jury awarded Casias $1 million in compensatory damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages against each of the two officers.

The lawsuit says that the officers held Casias and 10 other inmates in a van outside the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe on a hot summer day for about 45 minutes to an hour as part of a transport trip that also included the Los Lunas state prison on the way to the lockup at Hobbs.

Some of the inmates passed out, including Casias, and the suit says some of the prisoners thought they were going to die. One inmate said he felt like he “literally began to cook,” according to the lawsuit.

Casias said in a phone interview Friday that reliving the incident during trial was traumatizing, but that he’s happy with the result.

“It was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” Casias said. “There are no words to express how horrible it was.”

Casias was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon in 2013 and was released in August 2014.

The lawsuit says Casias fell out of the van while unconscious when an officer opened a van door and hit his head on a bumper.

Casias’ attorney, Matthew Coyte, said prisoners in New Mexico are mistreated on a daily basis while being transported.

“I think this is an important case that sheds light on the horrors that take place on these transport rides in New Mexico,” Coyte said in an interview Friday.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza said Morgan is still employed with the department and that Gonzales retired in October.

She did not provide any additional comment on the case.

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