Attorneys: Drastic oversight needed over jail conditions - Albuquerque Journal

Attorneys: Drastic oversight needed over jail conditions

The Metropolitan Detention Center in the outskirts of the county has been having difficulty hiring and retaining staff. It is currently at a 31.7% staff vacancy. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In response to concerns about severe understaffing at the Metropolitan Detention Center, attorneys are asking a judge to order Bernalillo County to take drastic steps – including consideration of a request for assistance from the New Mexico National Guard and, if the facility cannot be adequately staffed, releasing inmates to bring down the population.

A motion filed in federal court by the attorneys in the McClendon case – whose settlement agreement lays out reforms for the jail – states that the county is violating inmates’ Eighth and 14th Amendment rights and is “deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs’ need for reasonable safety, resulting in a pattern of conditions that threaten plaintiff’s life, health and welfare.”

“The staffing crisis at MDC has created a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates, in particular to those who are locked down in cells for many hours, if not days, at a time,” the motion states. “Locking down inmates for an extended period without supervision, without the ability to communicate with any MDC staff, creates a situation in which inmate assaults or medical emergencies may arise without intervention by jail officials or the ability of inmates to seek assistance.”

The McClendon settlement agreement was the result of a yearslong lawsuit over conditions at the county jail. It lays out more than 200 requirements the county has to follow.

The Journal published a story Sunday citing corrections officers, attorneys and the jail administration who are worried that understaffing was creating dangerous conditions. The jail has a 31.7% staff vacancy and an average inmate population of 1,248 over the past month.

According to the motion, MDC has not had adequate staffing since April 2019, before the pandemic began. It has also been experiencing flaws with the call button system in cells, the motion states.

A Bernalillo County spokeswoman said officials would not be able to comment on the filing on Thursday.

Attached to the motion are declarations from staff and inmates, testifying about conditions and saying that inmates have had seizures or attempted to kill themselves when no corrections officers are around.

“I feel unsafe being alone on the pod with no officer,” one inmate wrote. “Call buttons don’t work – nobody answers.”

According to the motion, even though attorneys had repeatedly notified the administration that call buttons weren’t working, they didn’t work the night Leon Casiquito was beaten to death, allegedly by his cellmate, Telea Lui.

“The Declarations agree that no corrections officer was on the pod for at least an hour, during which time Mr. Casiquito was murdered,” the motion states. “Review of the pod camera confirmed that the corrections officer left the pod, Echo 8 (‘E8’), at 4:41pm and no officer returned until 5:39pm.”

The inmates said it was common for corrections officers to leave a pod unsupervised for two to three hours at a time.

According to the declarations, about 15 minutes after the officer left the pod, inmates began hearing Casiquito call for help. An inter-office memo detailing the incident said video shows the assault began as early as 5:07 p.m. and at about 5:15 p.m. Casiquito’s “hands can be seen leaving visible bloody handprints on the cell window.”

More than 20 minutes later, the scene was discovered by an inmate working as a bay orderly who alerted corrections officers.

“The men who were on the pod at the time of Mr. Casiquito’s death reported anxiety, PTSD triggers, being unable to sleep, hearing the screams, seeing the blood filling the body bag, seeing Mr. Lui covered in blood,” the motion states. “They are afraid for their safety. Most reported that the lockdowns are negatively impacting their mental health.”

The attorneys asked for several emergency relief measures, including for the county to maintain at least one officer on each pod, submit a plan to ensure that personnel will respond to call button requests, be fined if it doesn’t implement a plan within 15 days, offer 20 hours of mental health counseling to every inmate in the pod where Casiquito was killed and provide adequate time out of cells for inmates. They also asked for the county to consider providing incentive pay for officers working overtime hours on weekends, closing some pods that are not in use and requesting help from the New Mexico National Guard or other emergency assistance.

As far as long term relief, the attorneys asked for the county to provide monthly in-person reports demonstrating progress.

“Should County Defendant be unable to adequately place a correctional officer on each pod during each shift, consider convening a three-judge panel to entertain a release order to bring MDC’s population down to a level that allows (for) constitutionally adequate supervision,” the motion states.

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