Three former inmates of a state prison in Springer allege in a new federal lawsuit that they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by guards over the past few years and that their reports to prison officials about the abuse were met with indifference or retaliation.
The attorney representing the three women said in an interview Tuesday that about a dozen women incarcerated at the Springer prison have reached out to her in the last year “reporting the same predatory behavior by correctional officers.”
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 15 in U.S. District Court, alleges that during a period from 2016-18, prison guards forced the women to show their breasts, kiss each other, allow the guards to touch them, masturbate in front of guards and watch guards masturbate.
One woman claims in the complaint that her abuser harassed her when she was in solitary confinement by turning the lights on every half-hour to wake her up and made derogatory comments about her body — all while controlling every aspect of her life, including whether she was fed.
When the women objected to the abuse or reported it, their complaint says, they lost jobs and privileges in the prison, or were threatened with segregation or loss of “good time” credit, an incentive in which a person’s prison sentence is reduced for favorable behavior.
One inmate put in two requests to be transferred to another housing unit to escape a guard who was harassing her, only to watch the guard’s superior throw her request in the trash and have her cell raided that night, the complaint alleges.
According to the suit, another woman filed a grievance saying a guard had abused her, but when she followed up on the status of her complaint, prison officials told her they had no record of it.
The New Mexican is not naming the women who filed the complaints because they are making allegations of sexual assault. At least one of them was interviewed by New Mexico State Police as part of a criminal investigation, according to the complaint. The outcome of that investigation was unclear Tuesday.
The women’s complaint names seven prison employees as defendants, including guards Christopher Padilla, Justin N. Sanders and Malcolm J. Gonzales; wardens or former wardens Ebeth Cruz-Martinez, John Sanchez and Marianna Vigil; and Security Capt. Robert Gonzales.
Sanchez and Gonzales also are named as a defendant in a lawsuit with similar allegations filed in July in state District Court.
The New Mexican was able to speak to only two of the seven defendants Tuesday.
Gonzales said he was not allowed to comment on the case without permission from the state Department of Corrections’ central office. Vigil referred all questions to Corrections Department spokesman Ricardo Montoya.
Asked to comment on the allegations, Montoya said in an email the department “has not received or been served anything on this matter.”
All but one of the defendants named in the August complaint are still employed by the department, he added.
Montoya didn’t respond to a follow-up question about which employee is no longer with the department, and he did not provide the employees’ salaries or dates of employment, as requested.
The most recent lawsuit and the one filed in July seek damages for alleged civil rights violations and accuse high-ranking officials at the Springer facility of fostering an environment that normalizes sexual abuse.
The July suit alleges the guards’ “blatant abuse of power and illegal conduct is symptomatic of the general culture and pattern” at Springer Women’s Facility, where officials are in the habit of “ignoring, dismissing, and mishandling allegations of sexual abuse, and of retaliating against women who report such allegations.”
Both suits also say the phone number posted at the women’s prison as the Prison Rape Elimination Act hotline, which the prison is required to post, is wrong or does not function.