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‘Beyond the pale’

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

As an inmate, people are at the mercy of their jailers. Everything from when they eat to when they sleep is controlled.

For women incarcerated at the Springer Correctional Center, this also means being at the mercy of sexual assault.

The housing units have open-area living quarters at the Springer Correctional Center. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

Several attorneys have filed multiple lawsuits against Springer Correctional Center and the New Mexico Department of Corrections for sexual assault at the facility. These lawsuits occur often enough that it shows a pattern of sexual assault at the prison.

Attorney Ryan Villa, who recently settled a sexual assault case out of Springer for $75,000, said that until the New Mexico Risk Management Division takes responsibility for these cases, it prevents meaningful changes that would stop the sexual assaults from happening.

“But Risk Management, by saying ‘we’re not going to pay for this,’ is basically saying ‘we’re not going to stop this’ in my opinion,” Villa said. “Because when Risk Management is on the hook, they will then generally take steps to try to stop this stuff from happening.”

It basically sends a message to the prisons that Risk Management isn’t going to do anything to stop the assaults, Villa said.

In one of his cases, Villa represented a woman at Springer who was working as a barber. A mail room worker soon took an interest in her. He started sending her inappropriate letters and going to her for haircuts.

The woman never responded to the letters and feared that, if she reported them, she would be retaliated against, the lawsuit stated.

Villa said these fears of retaliation are not unwarranted. If an inmate makes a Prison Rape Elimination Act complaint and the Corrections Department doesn’t believe the complaint, they would punish the inmate, he said.

This could be by taking away their good time earned, their prison job, commissary access and more, he said.

Soon after the letters started, the worker cornered the woman in a supply closet and sexually assaulted her. She didn’t report it, again out of fear of retaliation. The letters were eventually found by prison officials and the woman told officials what happened. But, as far as she and Villa knew, nothing was really ever done.

“Instead of the staff going, ‘let’s investigate this, let’s treat it as true until proven otherwise,’ their position is ‘somebody’s lying, we need to disprove this, we need to punish the person that’s making the complaint,'” Villa said. “If Risk Management got involved, because they’ve got the power of the purse, they could change the culture – that’s really what it needs is a culture change.”

Eric Harrison, public information officer with the Corrections Department, said the department has a zero tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and harassment. Harrison said each facility has a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) compliance manager to ensure these complaints are “immediately and thoroughly investigated.”

These compliance managers are also in charge of making sure inmates and staff do not face retaliation after a claim is made, he said. All staff, volunteers and contractors are required to go through PREA background checks, attend PREA training and have annual PREA refresher training.

He said the Corrections Department has free confidential rape crisis hotlines and inmates can even report PREA violations to an outside agency – the Colorado Department of Corrections – if they wish.

Retaliation for reporting

Lalita Moskowitz, an American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico attorney, also represented three clients sexually assaulted while in prison – one at Springer and two at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants.

Moskowitz said there is definitely a pattern of sexual assault at correctional facilities. For her client incarcerated at Springer, she, along with four other women, made multiple complaints about the correctional officer who allegedly sexually assaulted them. However, the officer was never disciplined, and worked at Springer for three more years, she said.

“We have seen that sexual assault complaints are not taken seriously by the facilities,” Moskowitz said. “And investigations are not done thoroughly.”

Moskowitz also said there was a lot of retaliation against women who report sexual assault, which was the case with one of her clients incarcerated at the Grants facility. After she reported her assault, the woman was disciplined for “attempting to engage in, or engaging in, an unauthorized or inappropriate relationship” and had a year of good time earned taken away from her.

This even though the two officers were later criminally charged with sexual assault and one pleaded guilty per a plea agreement to the charges, according to court records. Her civil lawsuit in First Judicial District Court recently settled for $135,000.

Moskowitz said this isn’t necessarily a training issue, but a culture issue in the Corrections Department. She said a lot of it is a culture of ignoring the rules and staff not doing what they were trained to do.

“I think more outside oversight, particularly, would be really beneficial,” Moskowitz said. “Folks who are not just completely mired in the system itself.”

Taking advantage of addiction

Attorney Justine Fox-Young is currently representing four women in separate lawsuits who claim they were sexually assaulted at Springer. In one of those lawsuits, a correctional officer from Moskowitz’s Springer lawsuit is also listed as a perpetrator.

A correctional officer in one of her lawsuits has also been criminally charged with sexual assault against one of her clients. The officer initially approached the woman and placed Suboxone, a medication to treat opioid addiction, in her eye.

She soon became dependent on Suboxone and the officer started to demand sex in exchange for the drugs, according to the criminal complaint.

“There has been longstanding and widespread abuse of women at the Springer Correctional Facility, and we hope to put an end to that, and to vindicate the rights of a number of victims,” Fox-Young said.

Fox-Young said that the women who she and co-counsel Erlinda Johnson represent have undergone terrible abuses and very inhumane treatment during their time at Springer. She said the public deserves to know what’s happening at Springer and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham needs to put a stop to it.

What needs to be done

Attorney Paul Kennedy

Attorney Paul Kennedy said he’s been suing jails and prisons since the 1980s and that the situation at Springer is “beyond the pale.” He said nobody seems to want to do anything about it and the government resists the lawsuits instead of cleaning up the facility.

He said abuse at Springer is just so blatant and rampant that the U.S. Department of Justice needs to take over the facility.

Kennedy recently filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Department on behalf of a client who was also sexually assaulted at Springer.

He said his client was taken to an area of the facility without cameras and sexually assaulted twice in a holding cell by a correctional officer.

This occurred after the New Mexico State Police investigated allegations against that corrections officer and his case was referred to the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution. But his supervisors did nothing and the correctional officer continues to work at the facility, according to the lawsuit.

Harrison said there are currently 283 cameras at the Springer facility, 160 of which have been replaced in the past two years. He said the department intends to continue upgrading cameras until all 283 are replaced. He said the cameras are monitored 24/7 by staff.

“I just think they are so used to getting away with it, that they just don’t care,” said Kennedy.