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Ex-con can take his own shovel to prison dig

A former inmate is being allowed to dig for what he says is buried evidence of inmate abuse at the Old Main facility, now closed, at the state penitentiary south of Santa Fe. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A former inmate is being allowed to dig for what he says is buried evidence of inmate abuse at the Old Main facility, now closed, at the state penitentiary south of Santa Fe. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – A district judge is allowing a former inmate a little more time and his own shovels – but not a pickax – to dig for evidence of alleged abuse of and organ harvesting from inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

On Monday, Judge Sarah Singleton modified a previous ruling, saying that Samuel Chavez can take up to two shovels and a flashlight when he digs for evidence in the recreation yard and below the basement of the pen’s now-unoccupied Old Main building.

Singleton originally ruled that Chavez had a 30-minute limit to dig at both sites, but now she’s saying that Chavez can have an extra half-hour to dig if the objects he’s looking for aren’t found within the first half-hour.

Singleton added that it shouldn’t take too much time to dig for something presumably buried years ago with little more than a spoon.

Chavez filed a civil lawsuit against former Gov. Bill Richardson and several prison officials in 2007, alleging that he was stripped of civil rights when he was unjustly put in solitary confinement several times and was given food and drink that caused him to lose his vision, hearing and memory dating back to 1992. Chavez, a known “jailhouse lawyer,” was serving time for a 1988 Las Cruces murder conviction and was released in 2010.

Chavez also claims that he buried proof, including ledgers, in several locations throughout the prison showing that dead inmates’ organs and body parts were being harvested and sold, and he wants to dig for that evidence.

Francisco Macias, Chavez’s El Paso-based attorney, argued via teleconference Monday for having up to two hours for both digs, saying 30 minutes is not “reasonable under the circumstances.” He also made the case for Chavez using his own tools. Singleton originally ruled that a shovel would be provided by the Department of Corrections.

“I would ask to bring my own equipment in,” Macias said, speaking on behalf of his client. “I don’t know what kind of shovel they’re going to give me. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I know that people that do work there at the penitentiary take tools in.”

Singleton is allowing Chavez to take a round-blade utility shovel – or two, if two people are going to be digging – along with a flashlight, gardening spade and a stepladder, but she is not allowing a pickax. She said that equipment she allowed was sufficient since Chavez could not have used the most advanced tools when he allegedly buried ledgers and other items.

“I would imagine it was something in the nature of a spoon,” Singleton said. “I don’t think they hand out shovels to the prisoners very often. I’m having trouble understanding how it would take more than half an hour to dig with shovels to locate something that was hidden by hand.”

Chavez also asked to search cells he stayed in while incarcerated at the still-active South Unit. Singleton said it was OK for him to videotape the cells at the Old Main building, but she said only still-photos can be taken in the pen’s facilities that currently house inmates.

Sean Olivas, who is representing the state government defendants, argued Monday that Macias didn’t have a “compelling reason” to try to alter Singleton’s original ruling limiting digging implements to one shovel provided by Corrections.

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