Tierna Unruh-Enos is publisher at The Paper.

A new lawsuit filed by New Mexico Prison & Jail Project alleges that the state’s Department of Corrections is interfering with civil rights violation complaints by inmates. The newly founded organization filed a lawsuit Dec. 11 alleging a culture of secrecy within the New Mexico Corrections Department. The lawsuit states that the agency continues to fail in responding to public records requests in a timely manner. 

The Albuquerque-based nonprofit group, led by former ACLU attorney Steven Robert Allen as director and by advisers including civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte, says at least 10 lawsuits have been filed against the Corrections Department so far in 2020 concerning compliance with the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act. According to the Inspection of Public Records Act in New Mexico, a government agency has 15 business days to respond to a request. As with many requests concerning government agencies, the COVID-19 pandemic has often stretched that time limit up to to 60 days. 

“We asked for the civil complaints in every [Inspection of Public Records Act] case brought against the Department of Corrections, and they didn’t provide us those documents, which is outrageous,” said Coyte, who serves as a steering committee member for the project. “It’s a simple public record request.”

Coyte’s prior work on prison conditions includes a lawsuit involving a man who was held in solitary confinement for nearly two years without trial at a county jail in Las Cruces. The lawsuit on behalf of Kevin Sloan, since deceased, resulted in a 2013 settlement in excess of $15 million against Doña Ana County.

The Corrections Department has extended its response deadline to late December for a records request initially filed Oct 12. Agency spokesman Eric Harrison declined to comment directly on the lawsuit and said in email, “Our agency understands the importance of the Inspection of Public Records Act process, and we remain committed to transparency.”

“Understanding what’s going on in prisons and jails is even more important in the middle of the pandemic,” says NMPJP steering committee member Cathy Ansheles, the former executive director of New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “NMPJP has been getting calls almost every day from incarcerated people and their loved ones about the nightmarish conditions in these facilities. What we’re hearing from people directly contradicts what we’re hearing from NMCD.”

Advisors and staff at the project say they plan to advocate for better treatment of inmates—including medical attention amid the coronavirus pandemic—at state and privately operated prisons and county jails through litigation. Any financial awards from the state—ultimately taken from taxpayers—would be reinvested into litigation aimed at improving prison conditions, according to Allen. The group states that all lawsuits are intended to create a much-needed change within the prison and jail system in the state. 

The New Mexico Prison & Jail Project was started with a private grant from the Vital Projects Fund, which actively supports criminal justice reform nationwide. It also receives administrative support from the Texas Civil Rights Project.