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SANTA FE – A lawsuit filed Friday accuses the state Corrections Department of violating the law by failing to release records on its decision to hire a private company to photocopy prison mail and deliver copies – rather than the actual letters – to inmates.
Independent state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque filed the lawsuit in his capacity as an attorney working with inmates and families who believe the new policy violates their rights.
But Friday’s suit centers on allegations that the state failed to turn over public records, not the merits of the mail policy itself.
Corrections leaders say the mail screening, which started this year, is intended to curtail the flow of illegal drugs into the prison amid an increase in inmate overdoses.
Legislators, in turn, have questioned whether it’s made any difference in prison safety, while disrupting communication between inmates and the outside world.
Candelaria said it’s in the public’s interest to see documents explaining why the state opted to hire Securus, a private firm, to screen inmate mail. He filed a records request in January and received no response, according to his lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the new policy not only keeps inmates from receiving the original letters sent to them, but also prohibits altogether magazines and similar publications.
“We’ve been retained by several inmates and their families to investigate potential First Amendment violation claims against the Corrections Department,” Candelaria told the Journal. “Unfortunately, those efforts have been frustrated by the department’s absolute unwillingness to turn over these public records.”
The lawsuit was filed in state District Court on Friday and obtained by the Journal at the end of the day.
The Journal late Friday was not immediately able to reach the Corrections Department for comment.
Corrections officials defended the screenings in a legislative hearing earlier this week, describing it as a necessary step to curtail the flow of drugs into the prison system.
They said inmates had been receiving letters soaked in synthetic cannabis, fentanyl or other narcotics, then burning the material and inhaling the fumes.
A health care administrator for the Corrections Department described the policy as a critical way to safeguard the health of inmates and halt an increase in drug overdoses.
Analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee say the new policy doesn’t appear to have had an immediate impact on the drug positivity rate of inmates who are randomly tested.
Corrections officials contend the test positivity rate isn’t a meaningful way to measure the policy’s effect and that they’ve seen a drop in medical incidents related to drug use since the policy went into effect.
In Friday’s lawsuit, Candelaria alleges the Corrections Department violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act by not responding to his Jan. 5 requests for public records. He is seeking state contracts and agreements with Securus or any other private company hired to process inmate mail and correspondence concerning the development of the new policy.
The lawsuit seeks damages of $100 a day for violating the public records law – a total that would exceed $18,000 so far.
The mail screenings began earlier this year, sparking opposition from inmates and their families, who say it has slowed and disrupted the flow of mail to inmates.
Under the screening system, people who want to mail a letter to a New Mexico inmate must now send it to an address in Florida, where the material is copied and then mailed back to the state prison system, according to state officials.
The change also restricts what kind of mail inmates may receive. Greeting cards, for example, are no longer accepted, according to legislative records.
Candelaria’s lawsuit describes the policy as “draconian and constitutionally offensive.”