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Dwight Duran led the charge for prison reform

The late Dwight Duran filed a civil rights lawsuit that led to federal court oversight of the state's prison system for 20 years. (Journal)

The late Dwight Duran filed a civil rights lawsuit that led to federal court oversight of the state’s prison system for 20 years. (Journal)

Three-part series: Revisiting the Nightmare.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to retired U.S. Magistrate Judge William Deaton as the late U.S. Magistrate Judge William Deaton.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Dwight Duran was being held in solitary confinement in 1976 at the old “Main” prison south of Santa Fe when he managed to smuggle out a handwritten civil lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections and then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, claiming inmates were being held in inhumane conditions.

Despite his death at age 68 in 2008, his influence is still felt in the legal battles over New Mexico’s prison system.

Duran, who first ran into trouble with the law at age 16, was paroled and left the prison 12 days before the 1980 riot. He was apprehensive about leaving because he believed that he was helping to keep a lid on a simmering prison that would erupt soon after he left.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas

Duran became a paralegal and never, according to his nephew, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, had so much as a traffic ticket the rest of his life.

But Duran’s legacy lives on.

Next week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kirtan Khalsa will decide whether to approve yet another settlement agreement in the inmate class action lawsuit that still bears Duran’s name as lead plaintiff.

The latest incarnation of the lawsuit was filed in 2015 alleging the state had violated a 1998 agreement that released the state from federal court oversight because of overcrowding at medium security prisons, in particular the women’s prisons in Grants and Springer and the dormitories housing men at the private prison in Otero County.

The state has now agreed to reduce crowding in those prisons, although inmates in the Otero County prison say the state’s promise to cut dormitory crowding in Otero County is insufficient.

Agreement implemented

In 1979, then-Attorney General Jeff Bingaman and Gov. Bruce King signed off on the original agreement for federal court oversight of the state’s prison.

It was approved by U.S. District Judge Santiago Campos in July 1980 after revisions that came about as a result of the riot.

For 20 years, the Duran Consent Decree governed the way the state ran prisons and treated inmates, based largely on standards set by the American Corrections Association that covered everything from sanitary conditions in kitchens, to heating and cooling systems and access to basic hygiene products like toothpaste and soap.

The agreement set out rules for classifying inmates and for discipline. Inmates were guaranteed access to medical and mental health services, attorneys and mail.

A court-appointed monitor and a team of specialists reviewed the department’s compliance with standards laid out in the decree.

But there was unhappiness on both sides.

Prison officials blamed the decree for increasing budgets, prison violence and escapes. They complained the decree tied their hands in dealing with problem prisoners.

Inmate attorneys claimed prison officials used the decree as a smokescreen to cover their own incompetence.

In any case, it was expensive.

The decree cost the state millions of dollars a year in attorney fees for its own private lawyers and fees awarded to inmate attorneys when the court ruled in their favor.

The state also had to pay for the costs of the monitor and the specialists filing reports to the court on the state’s compliance or noncompliance with the standards.

The legal landscape changed in 1996, when Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which placed restrictions on the ability of prisoners to file lawsuits like the Duran case based on conditions of their confinement.

The law placed additional burdens on prisoners seeking to get their case before the federal courts for civil rights violations, including more payment of court fees and a requirement that inmates had to exhaust all administrative remedies set out by the state before filing in federal court.

And the law set time limits on how long the court could oversee prison operations, usually two years.

In 1998, U.S. District Judge John Edwards Conway found the state was in substantial compliance with the decree except in the area of mental health. It took another two years for the state to meet those standards.

Despite Conway’s ruling, the Corrections Department has struggled providing medical and mental health services to inmates over the last 20 years and has faced and lost additional inmate civil lawsuits over the care they received.

Duran case grows

Duran’s legal filing was taken up by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, who combined it with other inmate lawsuits in a class action civil rights case that bore Duran’s name as lead plaintiff from 1977.

“Dwight Duran showed amazing courage in starting what turned into the consent decree case,” said Peter Cubra, who has represented prison and jail inmates throughout the state for almost 40 years.

Mark Donatelli, one of the attorneys in the prison lawsuit, asked then-Gov. Bill Richardson to grant Duran a posthumous pardon. The pardon was never granted.

“Dwight showed a special degree of heroism,” Donatelli said.

Over the course of the case, Duran worked with other notable attorneys: the late state Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels, David Freedman, retired U.S. Magistrate William Deaton, Ray Twohig, Phillip Davis, and others.

Duran told the Journal in 2004 that his criminal career started when he was 16 and that he served a total of 16 years and six months for robbery, larceny and forgery charges.

He was serving a four-year sentence for forging a $35 check at the time he wrote his legal complaint.

The settlement negotiations on what became known as the “Duran Consent Decree” were in the final stages when the state Parole Board notified him that he was going to be paroled in December 1979.

Maestas said Duran had mixed feelings about the parole.

“He was respected by the different inmate groups within the prison,” Maestas said. “He felt he was keeping the lid on inmate unrest. He could tell them the lawsuit was making progress and they believed him.”

Duran became a paralegal after leaving prison and worked on the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C.

He then returned to New Mexico, where he worked on the lawsuit that bore his name and testified numerous times in federal court.

He was honored by the ACLU in 2001 with its Civil Libertarian Achievement Award. He was also recognized by the Mexican-American Law Students Association in 2000 with its Fighting for Justice Award.

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