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4 COs file lawsuit alleging dangerous conditions at N.M. prison

The plaintiffs fear going to work due to “persistently malfunctioning equipment, gross understaffing, gross incompetence of management and threats of retaliation”

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New Mexico Corrections Department

By Colleen Heild
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

LOS LUNAS, N.M. — Four longtime state correctional officers are sounding the alarm, alleging that dangerous conditions at the prison in Los Lunas are putting their lives, and those of other staff and inmates, at “grave” risk.

Severe understaffing, combined with failing security equipment at the 43-year-old prison, have left staff “afraid,” states a lawsuit filed by the employees last month in state district court. Moreover, they allege that their attempts to correct the conditions have been met with “reprisal” by corrections officials.

“It’s absolutely reckless,” said attorney Parrish Collins, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of correctional officers Andres Martinez, Sonja Boucher, Leona Chavez and corrections Sgt. Dominic Baca. All but Boucher have worked at the Corrections Department for at least a decade, with Martinez spending the most time, 18 years, at the agency.

A Corrections spokeswoman Brittany Roembach said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but said in an email on Thursday, “NMCD is committed to ensuring that all of our facilities are safely staffed.”

The lawsuit alleges that at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility:

Correctional officers are “recklessly forced” to attempt to cover multiple units and pods (inside the prison) by themselves. That has exposed the plaintiffs to “unsupervised, dangerous inmates beyond their capacity to supervise.” Officers are compelled to regularly work double shifts and sometimes triple shifts due to the shortage. Nurses are left alone with no security personnel, some forced to do inmate laundry because of a lack of biohazard staff. Inmates are not receiving their medications, including psychiatric medication, in a timely manner and frequently not at all, creating “enormous risks for all users of the building.” Maggots have infested the trucks used to transport the food served to inmates. Mentally ill patients and other inmates are tasked with watching over mentally ill and suicidal inmates. Inmate-on-inmate assaults and assaults on correctional officers are on the rise.

Moreover, the lawsuit contends the Corrections Department has provided false and or misleading information to auditors about staffing, mental health services, functioning of equipment and facilities, food quality and other information.

The plaintiffs say they have reported these problems repeatedly up the chain to supervisors, deputy wardens, wardens, the secretary of Corrections and to the governor.

But security at the prison is steadily worsening, and correctional officers, staff and medical personnel “are leaving in droves.”

“Not only has NMCD failed to replace those employees, but it is now attempting to eliminate (full-time) positions in a seeming effort to improve their staff vacancy numbers,” the lawsuit alleges.

The plaintiffs and other employees “fear going to work each day due to persistently malfunctioning equipment, gross understaffing, gross incompetence of (Corrections) management and threats of retaliation.”

Those who filed the lawsuit “all want to remain at (NMCD). They love their profession as correctional officers. They want to serve the public, the prisoners they oversee, and their correctional officers and staff...”

Asked about staffing, spokeswoman Roembach told the Journal that the Los Lunas prison has 51 vacancies for correctional officers, with a total of 181 full-time positions authorized.

Roembach said corrections officers are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and the union has “not formally challenged the Corrections Department or any of our facilities on behalf of its members.”

The lawsuit is asking for damages, and court orders requiring Corrections officials to immediately comply with applicable standards. It also asks a judge for independent auditors to inspect the Los Lunas facility and review its compliance with American Correctional Association standards and to provide a full audit of what it alleges are Corrections Department’s “falsifications” on the two most recent ACA audits.

While the state prison population has been declining for the fourth consecutive year, there was a 32% vacancy rate in correctional officer positions at state prisons as of June 30, according to the most recent data from the state Legislative Finance Committee.


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