High court weighs inmate safety allegations

The New Mexico Supreme Court building in Santa Fe, as seen in March 2020. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Arguing before the state Supreme Court, attorneys clashed Monday over whether New Mexico's prison system offers a meaningful appeals process for inmates who allege the state isn't protecting them from COVID-19.

A lawsuit filed by inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the state Criminal Defense Lawyers Association alleges the state failed to take adequate steps to limit infections in prison, triggering a “public health catastrophe” and violation of prisoners' right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

They are seeking a reduction in the prison population and appointment of a special master to oversee which inmates can be released. But much of the hearing focused on whether the inmates must first exhaust their options in the prison system's administrative hearing process before asking the court for help.

Christopher Casolaro, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the justices that New Mexico offers a “futile” grievance process for inmates – inadequate to protect their rights – and that court intervention is appropriate.

“It was impossible,” he said, “for the named plaintiffs to get the relief they sought through the grievance process.”

Casolaro and other attorneys for the inmates say the state hasn't enforced mandates for social distancing and mask-wearing in prison.

But attorneys for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state Corrections Department disputed the claims. They said the state is offering vaccines to inmates and guards, among other steps to limit infections.

The corrections system, state attorneys said, also offers an emergency administrative process that provides for quick decisions on conditions in prison – the proper venue for inmates concerned about health procedures.

“In order for inmates to challenge the adequacy of an emergency grievance procedure, they need to at least attempt to invoke that process,” Assistant Attorney General Neil Bell said.

The justices skeptically questioned attorneys on both sides during the hourlong hearing before taking the case under advisement, rather than issuing an immediate ruling.

The issue is before the Supreme Court after the plaintiffs appealed a lower-court decision. In October, District Judge Matthew Wilson dismissed the case, contending the inmates hadn't exhausted their administrative remedies before heading to court.

In a separate case, the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit last year that sought the release of some inmates as part of a strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19. The justices ruled in May 2020 that the state hadn't been “deliberately indifferent” to the health and safety of inmates.

Altogether, the state has reported 2,992 coronavirus cases during the pandemic among inmates held by the Corrections Department.

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