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Guard investigated in inmate escape was sued

A New Mexico corrections guard under investigation after two violent inmates escaped from a prison transport van also has been accused of leaving inmates unattended in a hot vehicle, raising questions about oversight of prisoner transports in the state.

Officials disclosed in documents obtained by The Associated Press on Monday that Taracina Morgan, 38, and another guard were in charge of transporting two violent felons from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe to a correctional facility in Las Cruces.

Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah escaped the van during a fuel stop March 9 along a remote New Mexico highway. They were apprehended days later, but authorities have declined to say what missteps by corrections staff might have led to the escape and how the inmates were able to slip past Morgan and fellow guard Michael Ortega.

Both Morgan and Ortega have been with the Corrections Department for more than a decade and have been placed on administrative leave as authorities investigate any possible misconduct linked to the escape, according to letters to the guards dated March 11.

Morgan also was named in a lawsuit filed last year against the Corrections Department that says she and another guard left inmates unattended for up to an hour in a hot van with inadequate ventilation in July 2013.

Corrections Department policies require transport officers to guard prison vans at all times.

The department investigated and did not find Morgan guilty of the allegations, so she was not disciplined, corrections spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza said.

In the lawsuit, former inmate Isaha Casias, of Hesperus, Colo., said Morgan left him and 10 other inmates inside the vehicle during a stop at the state penitentiary.

The lawsuit described a scene of panic, with some prisoners passing out, including Casias, and others yelling and rocking the van in an effort to seek help, according to the lawsuit.

A phone call seeking comment from Morgan’s attorney was not immediately returned Monday.

Casias, who says he was denied treatment for days, is seeking compensation for emotional distress and physical injuries, including a seizure that the lawsuit suggests was caused by conditions inside the van.

Several people have been arrested in aiding the escape by Cruz and Clah, including a man who spotted the men along the road, took them to his home where he cut off their shackles, then helped them flee more than 200 miles north to Albuquerque, authorities say.

APNewsBreak: Guard investigated in inmate escape was sued