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It’s time for a closer look at the treatment of female prisoners

The housing units at the Springer Correctional Center have open-area living quarters. Numerous female inmates have filed lawsuits and complaints alleging rape and/or abuse by staff members. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s time for state government to take a close and extended look at the problem of sexual assault of female inmates in New Mexico prisons, particularly in the Springer Correctional Center in northern New Mexico

In the past few years, complaints and lawsuits over the rapes of female prisoners have increased exponentially.

A recent article by Journal North’s Isabella Alves detailed accusations of prison rape and assault – and retaliation against prisoners for reporting the assaults – from multiple lawsuits:

• A woman prisoner at Springer who worked as a prison barber started receiving inappropriate letters from a prison mail worker, who subsequently is alleged to have cornered her in a supply closet and raped her. Even though the letters were found by prison officials and the inmate told them what happened, no real action was taken as far as the prisoner and her lawyer know.

• A Springer inmate represented by an ACLU lawyer, along with four other prisoners, made multiple complaints about a prison officer who allegedly assaulted them. He was never disciplined and continued to work at Springer for three more years.

• The same lawyer represented a prisoner at the state’s Grants prison who, after reporting a sexual assault, was disciplined for trying to engage in an inappropriate relationship, even though two officers were later charged criminally in the case and one entered a plea agreement. This prisoner’s lawsuit was recently settled for $175,000.

• A Springer officer named in another lawsuit has also been criminally charged. He allegedly got a prisoner hooked on Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction, then demanded sex for drugs.

• A Springer guard who previously had been investigated by the State Police, resulting in a referral for possible charges to a district attorney, allegedly took a prisoner to part of the facility without surveillance cameras and sexually assaulted her twice.

And there’s more. In a federal court suit filed last year, a Springer prisoner alleged a correctional officer forced her to have sex with him about two times a week for a year. At least three prison staff defendants named in lawsuits filed in 2019 or 2020 resigned.

The state Department of Corrections touts a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and harassment, and says every prison facility has a Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance manager to ensure complaints are investigated, and that inmates and staff don’t face retaliation for making complaints. There are also free, confidential rape crisis hotlines, and prisoners can report to an outside agency – the Colorado Department of Corrections – if they want. At Springer, there are 283 cameras that are monitored 24/7, according to a New Mexico Corrections spokesperson.

Last year, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported sexual assault allegations in state prisons went from 57 in 2013 to 327 in 2018. The Corrections Department said it had increased efforts to have staffers report sexual activity, and made it easier and safer for inmates to report abuse.

Twenty-seven cases of sexual assault were substantiated, 93 were classified as unsubstantiated, 88 were declared “unfounded” and 99 reports were listed as “information only,” meaning the encounters were found to be “consensual.”

Of course, if any of those 99 “consensual” cases were about sex between a guard and a prisoner – instead of between two prisoners – they still constitute crimes under federal and state law. The position of power and authority a guard holds over an inmate means guard-prisoner sex can’t be considered consensual, the law holds.

Now, anyone can file a lawsuit and complaints don’t on their own constitute truth. But the sheer volume of the litigation over whether women prisoners are being raped raises many red flags. As noted above, even a State Police investigation isn’t necessarily enough to persuade a guard to stop taking advantage of inmates.

New Mexico has a bad history with prison operations – most notably one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots in 1980, which took place after years of overcrowding and ignoring other problems at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. There was federal oversight of state prisons for decades after the riot.

These days, the question of whether rape and assault are a regular and accepted part of New Mexico prison culture is being raised often and publicly in the civil courts, with enough evidence in some cases to lead to criminal charges or resignations.

That should be plenty for an agency – the governor’s office, the Attorney General’s Office, a district attorney’s office, a legislative committee – to investigate, despite the fact it might take political courage to take on the cause of lawbreakers behind bars.

More than big settlement payments for inmates and their lawyers is at issue here. The public needs to know if New Mexico is running a humane, just and decent prison system when it comes to women inmates.