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Lawsuit: Inmates suffered in van with no air-conditioning

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

After being stuck in the back of a hot transport van without air-conditioning in the blistering New Mexico summer, Lawrence Lamb said he thought he was going to die.

He, along with several other inmates, banged on the back of the van to try to get the correctional officer’s attention to no avail. Another inmate vomited and passed out beside him from the heat, and Lamb, 61, grew so dehydrated, he stopped sweating, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

The suit was filed against the New Mexico Corrections Department, and correctional officers Jose Cordero and Chris Marquez.

Spokesman Eric Harrison said the Corrections Department doesn’t comment on active litigation. He said lack of comment shouldn’t be construed as agreement with, or stipulation to, any of the allegations, and that the well-being and safety of inmates continues to be the priority for the department.

The lawsuit was filed in 1st Judicial District Court late last week in partnership with civil rights attorney Adam S. Baker and the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project. The lawsuit demands a jury trial, and is seeking damages for the physical and psychological injuries Lamb endured.

“With my 2-year-old or my dog, I wouldn’t leave them for 10 minutes in a car without air-conditioning,” Steven Robert Allen, project director, said. “It’s just such common sense that you don’t put people into an un-air-conditioned vehicle during the summer in New Mexico because it can kill them.”

According to the complaint, on June 21, 2019, Lamb was being transported by Marquez and Cordero from the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas to the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton. During the trip, Marquez was allegedly driving over 90 mph, which caused a tire to blow out near Rowe.

Wood, metal and other debris flew into the back of the van as the tire burst through the plywood flooring, according to the lawsuit. Several pieces of debris hit and injured inmates, including a metal piece that struck Lamb in the leg.

“When the tire blew out, it literally blew a hole in that floor,” Allen said. “For that kind of additional mayhem to ensue after the tire blew out is something the Corrections Department needs to look at.”

The blowout caused the inmates to wait nearly 2½ hours on the side of the road for a mechanic and an alternate transport van, according to the lawsuit. During this time, the inmates began to get overheated due to inconsistent air-conditioning as the transport van was turned on and off.

But the worst was yet to come.

Another van was brought by a garage specialist to change out the tire. Marquez and Cordero decided to use this new van to transport the inmates, even though the garage specialist warned them against it because the air-conditioner wasn’t working.

The inmates were transported to the state prison in Santa Fe for medical attention. During that 45-minute ride, inmates begged the correctional officers for help as they became unbearably hot, according to the lawsuit.

“There’s an attitude towards the inmates of reckless disregard – and we see it over and over again. These inmates are treated worse than most people treat their dogs,” Baker said.

After they were treated in Santa Fe, the corrections officers told the inmates the air-conditioning was fixed in order to get them back on the transport van to finish the trip, the court filing says. However, Lamb and others soon found out that wasn’t the case.

Lamb thought he was going to die from the heat, the lawsuit says, as inmates around him began to vomit and lose consciousness in the hot van. It got so hot that condensation began to form on the van wall’s from the inmates’ sweat, according to the complaint.

It took Lamb weeks to physically recover from the extreme dehydration he experienced during the ride, Baker said, and he’s still trying to recover from the psychological scars due to the incident.

This isn’t the first time the department has been in the hot seat over its transportation issues. Baker said that, two months before this incident, he won a $2 million settlement for another client transported in a similar situation.

Another inmate from the transport, Diego Tijerina, also filed a lawsuit in July in federal court on the incident.

“If the inmates aboard this van in this incident had been dogs, there probably would have been citations issued or arrests made,” Baker said.