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$750K deal reached in prison lawsuit

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Officials at the Los Lunas prison and a class of more than 470 current and former inmates have reached a settlement agreement that would pay out $750,000 to inmates allegedly forced to strip down and sit front to back for long periods in 2009 and early 2010.

The agreement, which a judge still has to approve, also calls for a change in the so-called “controlled seating” policy – a practice plaintiffs’ attorneys claim was referred to in the prison as “nuts to butts” – that would mandate a 1-foot-wide gap between inmates if they’re told to sit and straddle each other in times of unrest or emergency.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2011 after inmates claimed they were subjected to the practice at least four times in 2009 and 2010 at the Los Lunas Correctional Facility.

In court documents, inmates described being guarded by gun-wielding corrections officers wearing face masks, being forced to strip to their underwear and sitting single file on the gymnasium floor with their genitals touching the next inmate.

Inmates said they were held in this position for several hours without access to a bathroom, the lawsuit claims. In one instance, an inmate urinated on the prisoner in front of him, and several prisoners were forced to sit in the urine, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit, filed in the 13th Judicial District Court, alleged violation of constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment and to due process and equal protection under the law.

It named correctional officers as defendants, in addition to then-warden Anthony Romero, who allegedly yelled during one event that the inmates were his “bitches,” according to the lawsuit.

As part of the proposed agreement, inmates and their lawyers would divvy up the settlement, and the “correctional seating” policy would change to include a section that reads, “No inmate shall be made to sit straddling another inmate with less than approximately one foot gap between the inmates.”

Under the proposed agreement, the inmates’ attorneys will take one-third of the settlement, the three named plaintiffs will get $10,000 apiece, and the rest of the 472 inmates in the class will get between $528 and $2,115, depending on how many times they were subjected to the alleged abuse.

The inmates’ attorneys said that 83 of the 472 inmates will be difficult to find for various reasons.

The “nuts to butts” events allegedly happened June 1, June 18 and Dec. 29, 2009, and Jan. 26, 2010.

The agreement was reached after several months of negotiations and two mediations, according to court documents, one of which took place in Albuquerque and required the transport of several current inmates to the negotiation table.

Alex Tomlin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said she could not comment on the agreement because it hadn’t yet been finalized. She did say that “controlled seating” operations are very rare but are still an option for corrections officers who are trying to take control of a chaotic situation.

“It’s not something that we would use often,” she said. “There are several ways that we would go about it. It’s a case-by-case thing.”

Should the judge approve the agreement, Tomlin said, the proposed policy change should take effect almost immediately.

Matthew Coyte, one of the inmates’ attorneys, said the case has been a sprawling endeavor over the past two years, and he said corrections officials repeatedly denied that the incidents occurred while meanwhile changing their policies. Surveillance footage from the dates in question was destroyed, according to court documents.

“We’ve come a long way,” Coyte said. “It took two years to get to this point, in the face of repeated denials that it happened at all.”