Inmate claims N.M. prison dangerous, but judge lacks jurisdiction to order investigation
Advocates say understaffing at Northeastern New Mexico Correctional Facility is leading to dangerous conditions and abusive treatment of inmates
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
CLAYTON, N.M. — Advocates for the incarcerated and at least one inmate who has launched a so-far unsuccessful effort to force an investigation into conditions at Northeastern New Mexico Correctional Facility say understaffing at the prison is leading to dangerous conditions and abusive treatment of inmates.
“Through numerous and unrelenting acts of dangerous and grotesque mismanagement [ New Mexico Corrections Department] and [Warden Mark Gentry] are deliberately causing an escalating pattern of group prison violence,” inmate David Peterson wrote in a June 1 motion. “Such is a precursor to dangerous and possibly deadly prison riots and more violence.”
New Mexico Prison and Jails project director Steven Allen said Thursday the nonprofit — which advocates for better conditions for New Mexico prisoners — has received multiple complaints about conditions at the prison in Clayton, which had been run by a private prison operator before the state took it over last year.
“What we have been hearing in conversations with family members and men incarcerated there ... is in some instances it’s gotten worse since the state has taken over,” Allen said. “It’s enough of a pattern that it’s impossible to escape notice.”
Allen said his group plans to file three complaints “in the very near future” about excessive force used by staff against inmates.
“Men are getting beat up there for no reason,” he said. “That’s one thing; there are also sexual harassment-type elements coming up regularly ... [corrections officers] doing weird, sexually threatening behavior at the same time these guys are getting beaten.”
On Thursday, District Court Judge Francis Mathew denied Peterson’s request to impanel a grand jury to investigate prison conditions. In denying the motion, the judge said he did so “not because I dismiss your concerns,” but because the state Corrections Department had correctly argued the judge didn’t have jurisdiction to grant Peterson’s request.
“Your concerns sound legitimate but the response made by the defendant is the one that prevails under the law,” the judge said at Thursday’s hearing.
Peterson’s motion alleges incidents of excessive use of force by guards against inmates, including instances in which prisoners were sprayed in the face with pepper spray or beaten while handcuffed outside the view of cameras.
He also alleged inmates had to be hospitalized after going on hunger strikes to protest poor conditions at the facility.
Peterson’s complaint linked increasing tension inside the prison to short staffing, saying the men are frequently locked in their cells and denied outdoor recreation, showers, visitation and other activities because there aren’t enough guards on duty.
During one overnight shift in May, his motion said, there were only two guards at the prison between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In another instance, Peterson told the judge Thursday, it took officials more than half an hour to respond to inmates’ repeated attempts to alert them that a fellow inmate was having a medical episode.
When a guard finally arrived, he said, the person was a lone woman who stood about 5-foot-2 and seemed afraid to enter the pod to investigate what was happening.
Analysts recognize short staffing
The Legislative Finance Committee’s third-quarter Performance Report Card for the Corrections Department said the Clayton prison had the highest vacancy rate of all the state-run prisons, with almost 50 percent of correctional officers positions unfilled.
As a result, the report card said, state officials moved inmates elsewhere, and by May 2 had reduced the population at the prison to 280 inmates, about 45 percent of it’s 628-bed capacity.
Corrections spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said in an email Thursday the prison has a population of 279 inmates and a staffing vacancy rate of 52 percent.
Hart said the department couldn’t comment on Peterson’s claims, and the department didn’t arrange an interview with or comment from Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya regarding the reports of poor conditions at Northeastern.
“NMCD has a process in place for constituent concerns to be addressed,” Hart wrote in an email.
“Our Constituent Services is staffed by knowledgeable and caring individuals who address the needs of those with questions. There is also a grievance process for inmate concerns within the facilities,” she added.
‘They aren’t going to be happy until something happens’
A Las Cruces woman whose son is serving several life sentences in Clayton emailed The New Mexican multiple times this spring with her concerns about conditions there, citing “frequent lockdowns often due to short staff,” food that doesn’t meet contract standards, “medical inconsistencies” and inadequate access to hygiene supplies.
“Many inmates are now on a hunger strike due to the poor quality and quantity given to these individuals,” she wrote in April.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her son told her Wednesday the facility had been locked down from Aug. 26 until Tuesday.
She forwarded The New Mexican copies of emails she said she sent to prison officials and others, including State House Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas D- Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico’s College of Population and Health and the New Mexico Corrections Department Office of Professional Standards, about conditions inside the prison.
She only received one response from the Corrections Department, she said, directing her to tell her son to file grievances.
She said he has done this repeatedly, to no avail.
The woman said Thursday her son has told her inmates at the prison have threatened violence over conditions.
“My son has frequently told me, ‘They aren’t going to be happy until something happens, they are going to attack the guards and there is going to be another Santa Fe,’ ”
she said, referencing the deadly riots that occurred in 1980 at the Penitentiary of New Mexico outside the capital city.
Maestas said Thursday he didn’t recall the email, which a date stamp shows she sent in April 2021.
But, the legislator said, he received a call Wednesday from a woman who said her “man” had been beaten up inside the prison and she was seeking legal representation in order to file a lawsuit against the state.
“I heard it’s melting down,” the legislator said. “Staffing is a huge, huge issue.”
Maestas said high staff vacancies and resulting restrictions on inmates’ ability to exercise or access educational program are bound to cause problems.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“It used to be overcrowding, now it’s understaffing. ... It’s just a horrible way to manage a prison.”