Fifty-six inmates have sued the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe, accusing the facility of not protecting inmates from the coronavirus and asking the state Supreme Court to intervene.
In a handwritten petition, the inmates claim that efforts to prevent infections were lax at the penitentiary, causing a serious outbreak in late October.
Prison officials didn’t conduct enough tests, didn’t separate inmates from those possibly infected, continued to have crews work outside in violation of state prison guidelines and allowed a worker with COVID-19 symptoms into a kitchen area multiple times, the lawsuit says.
“The pervasive disregard for the lives of the inmates … is borderline on criminal,” the lawsuit states.
Officials at the state Corrections Department and Governor’s Office declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The lawsuit asks that the state corrections secretary make the prison adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, reform the prison’s internal practices, provide proper medical care and release eligible inmates to community detention centers to ease congestion.
It also requests that inmates be awarded a lump sum for damages, though it doesn’t specify a dollar amount. And it asks that an attorney from the Public Defender’s Office represent them.
Public defender Kim Chavez Cook said it was predictable that state prison conditions would become so dire. That’s why her office joined civil rights advocates in asking the Supreme Court — unsuccessfully — to order the early release of some inmates.
“These accounts are extremely concerning, and we are looking closely at the petition,” she said.
The suit contends that an outside employee named Samuel who showed COVID-19 symptoms went unmasked to a prison kitchen on Oct. 23, was ordered to leave by a guard and returned later that day before being told again to leave.
Samuel came to the kitchen a few days later, still potentially infectious, and was asked to leave but went to the kitchen anyway, the lawsuit says. He was ordered to go yet again but returned to chat with inmates.
“Rather than doing what a reasonable person would do and go home, he came back and continued to interact with people,” said Christopher Martinez, an inmate who wrote the petition.
Shortly afterward, eight people tested positive for the virus. By early November, the caseload surged to 47.
Still, inmates were not tested at regular intervals, possibly so the prison could keep its reported positivity rate lower, Martinez wrote.
Meanwhile, inmates continued to cohabitate with undiagnosed inmates who might be infectious, Martinez said. The penitentiary has had 141 confirmed cases since the pandemic began.
Infected inmates were quarantined in areas with bad air circulation, weren’t allowed outside for fresh air and received no checkups, X-rays or other information about their health from medical staff, he said.
Martinez said the negligence claim in the suit is based on prison officials allowing outside work details even though they were supposed to be canceled. Such activities exposed inmates to people outside the prison who were more likely to have the virus, he said.
“It is cruel and unusual punishment to subject inmates to the substantial risk of contracting COVID-19,” Martinez wrote.
Staff writer Sean Thomas contributed to this report.