Protect your inmates or release them, groups tell New Mexico in class-action lawsuit

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ACLU, defense lawyers allege state exposing incarcerated people to COVID-19; so far, 509 have come down sick and four have died

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A nonprofit is accusing New Mexico of failing to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19.

In a class-action lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a group of criminal defense attorneys are demanding that the state reduce its inmate population and immediately improve conditions at detention centers.

The groups allege New Mexico has failed to protect the lives and constitutional rights of people housed in its prison system and demand that it enforce social distancing, improve hygiene practices and provide proper medical treatment.

COVID-19 cases have surged in New Mexico correctional facilities, particularly in the Otero County Prison Facility, where nearly 90% of incarcerated individuals became infected, according to the lawsuit. Some ill inmates died, they allege.

“Incarceration should not be a death sentence,” said Paul Haidle, executive director at the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the other party in the lawsuit. “The state’s failure to stop the spread of Covid-19 in prisons has already resulted in tragic loss of life and immense human suffering. People behind prison walls are living in fear and cannot afford to wait for conditions to improve.”

AP file photo

Last April the groups brought a similar lawsuit before the New Mexico Supreme Court, which denied the petition ruling that the groups did not prove deliberate and intentional damages.

The current lawsuit is filed in the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico in Santa Fe County. It lists nine inmates as plaintiffs who are being held at state prisons. Most of them are being held for nonviolent offenses, according to the lawsuit.

The New Mexico Corrections Department lists on its website 509 confirmed positive cases as of this Tuesday. Twenty-five inmates remain with active infections and four have died.

In April, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order directing the department to compile a list of inmates eligible for early release — excluding those convicted for felony drunk driving, domestic abuse or sex offenses. However, only 143 have been released since, the Associated Press reported.

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