Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Over the past year, New Mexico spent about $1.9 million settling civil rights, whistleblower and other claims filed against the state Corrections Department.
Now the complaints and their expense are drawing the attention of state legislators, who are preparing a bill that would establish an oversight commission and ombudsman to investigate prison conditions in New Mexico.
Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, outlined her ideas this week in a hearing before the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee as she sought opinions on how to strengthen oversight of the state prison system.
The discussion comes after New Mexico reached 29 settlements totaling almost $1.9 million in a recent 12-month period to resolve legal claims against the Corrections Department, according to a Journal analysis of state records. The largest payout was $450,000 after an inmate accused a corrections officer of raping her twice.
Also looming over legislators’ discussion this week was the 1980 inmate takeover at the state penitentiary, one of the nation’s deadliest prison riots. Thirty-three prisoners died amid the brutality as inmates seized control of the prison and held corrections officers hostage.
To shine a light on conditions now, Lara Cadena said she plans to introduce a bill in the 2023 session that would call for:
• An oversight commission with appointees selected by the Legislature, executive branch and judiciary.
• The hiring of an ombudsman empowered to investigate complaints and visit prisons unannounced.
• Requiring a public rule-making process for changes in how prisons operate.
The proposal’s components would be phased in over time.
Lara Cadena, a former Corrections Department official elected to the House in 2018, said the goal is to establish an oversight system that provides sound recommendations that help inmates and officers alike.
“Transparency is an incredibly powerful tool,” Lara Cadena told the committee this week.
But state Rep. Eliseo Alcon, a Milan Democrat and former state prison guard, suggested the proposal wouldn’t make a meaningful difference.
The Corrections Department, not the Legislature, is empowered to run the prison system.
“I’m not against the idea,” Alcon said, “but I don’t see it being a solution right now.”
He added that corrections officers have a difficult job.
“Prisons are not easy to be in, no matter what side of the prison you’re on,” Alcon said.
Other lawmakers said the proposal would be welcome as memory of the 1980 riot fades.
State Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, described a childhood memory of taking a call at his house as the governor sought a family member to help negotiate the end of the 1980 uprising.
“We probably should have done it 40 years ago,” Maestas said of the oversight proposal. But “some of that reform momentum waned.”
Other supporters of the concept said it would save the state money otherwise spent on expensive legal claims.
Among the biggest Corrections Department settlements over the past year are the $450,000 agreement in May to resolve a federal lawsuit by an inmate who alleges she was raped by an officer and a $431,000 agreement last month to settle a whistleblower lawsuit.
Another whisteblower suit – filed by four employees who said they were retaliated against after reporting problems – was settled for $198,000 in October.
The agreements typically include language in which the state denies liability and describes the settlement as a compromise to avoid the cost of further litigation.
The Journal was not able to reach a corrections spokesperson for comment.
The next 60-day session of the Legislature opens Jan. 17. The agenda is unrestricted and open to any bill introduced by a legislator.
Barron Jones of the American Civil Liberties Union said the oversight proposal would address public safety and help limit recidivism.
Over “90% of our prisoners are coming home one day,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us as a people – as a society – that they’re coming home better than when they went in.”