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.

Share Your Story

Nativo Sponsored Content

taboola desktop

MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS

1
Topgolf property listed for $16 million
ABQnews Seeker
The property housing Topgolf's Albuquerque location ... The property housing Topgolf's Albuquerque location is on the market, with a list price of $16 million.
2
Verus Research scratches a seven-year itch — for more ...
ABQnews Seeker
With seven years of accelerated growth ... With seven years of accelerated growth under its belt, Albuquerque engineering firm Verus Research h ...
3
Man charged in series of West Side armed robberies
ABQnews Seeker
A man is accused of robbing ... A man is accused of robbing 10 West Side businesses at knifepoint — most of them in less than a month’s time — and ...
4
Percentage of fully vaccinated NM residents nears 70% mark
ABQnews Seeker
The percentage of New Mexico adults ... The percentage of New Mexico adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 inched closer to 70% on Friday, with the state's vaccine administration rate having ticked ...
5
Father accused of sexually assaulting girls during sleepover
ABQnews Seeker
A man is accused of sexually ... A man is accused of sexually assaulting his daughter’s friends — 12 and 13 year olds — after getting them drunk during a sleepover ...
6
NM unemployment drops, but still higher than nation
ABQnews Seeker
After staying stagnant for several months, ... After staying stagnant for several months, New Mexico's unemployment rate dropped in August bu ...
7
Rio Rancho, West Side could add legislative power
ABQnews Seeker
Rio Rancho could gain a seat ... Rio Rancho could gain a seat in the state House under redistricting plans issued this week as New Mexico prepares to draw new political ...
8
Police ID man shot by Santa Fe deputy
ABQnews Seeker
New Mexico State Police identified the ... New Mexico State Police identified the man shot and injured by a Sante Fe County Sheriff's Office deputy Sept. 16 as Marvin Montoya, a ...
9
New Mexico reports 5 cases of West Nile virus ...
ABQnews Seeker
State health officials say they have ... State health officials say they have identified five cases of West Nile virus infections across New Mexico and that wet weather may be a ...