U.S. Magistrate Judge Kirtan Khalsa on Friday gave final approval to a settlement aimed at bringing an end to a 40-year-old civil case that forced some of the most significant penal reforms in New Mexico history.
The Duran Consent Decree was signed in 1980 in the wake of a bloody uprising at the Penitentiary of New Mexico to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by onetime inmate Dwight Duran. The agreement imposed rules aimed at bringing conditions in state prisons up to constitutional standards and making sure they remained.
For many years, the book-length agreement governed everything from pest control to medical care and included oversight from a court monitor. But in 1991, it was replaced with a new agreement that vacated most of its provisions, save those that restricted overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
Those limited provisions remained quietly in effect for more than a decade.
But prisoner representatives reopened the litigation in 2015, alleging the state had violated the consent decree by bolting additional bunks into single cells at a state prison facility in Grants.
The agreement Khalsa approved Friday, which prisoner representative Alexandra Freedman Smith has said resulted from a contentious eight-month negotiation with state officials, is intended to end the decree once and for all, if the state complies with certain requirements.
One requirement is that the state move almost 300 inmates from overcrowded prisons to those with more capacity in order to ensure each inmate has at least 50 square feet of living space, down from the 60 square feet previously required by the Duran decree.
The settlement also calls for regular visits by an exterminator, and it bars the department from filling facilities to greater than 120 percent of capacity and from punishing inmates for reporting sexual assaults, among other things.
“I really hope the state is serious about obeying the court order this time,” Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli, who has worked as a prisoner representative on the case for more than 30 years, said in a text message Friday. “But so far over the past year this administration has done little to correct the problems described in the agreement.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Nora Meyers Sackett, said in an email Friday that the New Mexico Corrections Department “continues to improve conditions after many years of inertia and status quo — today’s decision validates those efforts and demonstrates the agency’s commitment to resolving this yearslong suit by improving conditions in facilities and for paroled class members. It underscores the importance of the continued work of the Corrections Department in meeting best practices and improving the safety, rehabilitation and well-being of inmates.”
Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero did not respond to an email sent to her spokesman seeking comment late Friday.