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Duran Fought Prison System

By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
       When Dwight Duran filed his landmark lawsuit about prison conditions in 1977, he was being kept in "the hole," a solitary cell with no windows and nothing but a drain in the middle. He wrote the lawsuit by hand and smuggled it out.
    Even up until his death, he was evasive about how he got the lawsuit out of the hole.
    "All he would say is that he managed to slip it to someone, who managed to slip it to someone who got it out. He didn't even tell me the specifics," said Peter Cubra, an attorney who worked with Duran.
    Duran, 68, died Tuesday. Friends said his health had been failing for some time.
    Duran was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that challenged living conditions at the Penitentiary of New Mexico's Main Unit. The lawsuit resulted in the Duran consent decree, a list of requirements that governed the living conditions of prisoners in New Mexico from shortly after the riots of 1980 until a judge lifted most of the conditions in 1998.
    Duran spent much of his early life in prison, starting when he was 16. Before his death, he told the Journal that he served a total of about 16 1/2 years for charges including robbery, larceny and forgery. At the time he filed the suit in 1977, he was serving a four-year sentence for forging a $35 check.
    He was released from prison 12 days before the bloody riots that broke out in February 1980. From then on, Duran returned to prison only as an advocate. With a self-taught knowledge of the law, he devoted the rest of his life advocating for improved prison conditions, both in New Mexico and nationally.
    "Many prisoners who experience unfairness while they're incarcerated vow to fight for improvement of the system when they're released," said attorney Ray Twohig, who represented Duran in the original case. "Dwight actually did."
    Duran did a stint in Washington, D.C. working with the American Civil Liberties Union on its National Prison Project. He was honored by the ACLU in 2001 with its Civil Libertarian Achievement Award. He was also recognized by the Mexican-American Law Students Association in 2000 with its Fighting for Justice Award.
    Twohig, attorney Mark Donatelli and others who worked with Duran said they hope Gov. Bill Richardson will consider pardoning Duran's prior crimes in recognition of the work he has done since then.