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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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A record-breaking heatwave has been ravaging much of the southwest for the last month. Phoenix reached 118 degrees last week, breaking the previous record by four degrees. Nevada has been put on a high heat advisory as temperatures reached 111 in Las Vegas. The heat has also fueled forest fires in Arizona and New Mexico that will see little respite in the next few weeks. Luckily for most of us, we have access to air conditioning, making almost any heatwave nearly bearable. But there is a segment of the population that must endure the extreme temperatures without the luxury of air conditioning: prisoners.

Prisoners in the United States, especially in southern states, are often housed in units with no air conditioning. As a result, they are forced to sit and endure hours of extreme temperatures that may be higher than those outside. Even when they are transported to other facilities, they are often done so in vans without air conditioning for hours at a time. A recent lawsuit filed against the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) for exposure to extreme temperatures called attention to the conditions in which prisoners in New Mexico are placed.

Lawrence Lamb, a New Mexico inmate, has officially filed a lawsuit against the NMCD for his treatment in 2019, according to the ACLU. Lamb was exposed to extreme heat in the summer of 2019 when he was transported from Belen to a correctional facility in Clayton. Lamb and five other inmates were en route to the facility when the tire on the van blew on the hot summer day. The inmates were then moved to a different van that did not have air conditioning. Lamb and the other inmates were taken back to Los Lunas after spending hours in stifling heat while in the second van. When Lamb arrived back at Los Lunas, he was in a state of severe dehydration and physical shock. 

“Lawrence thought he was going to die,” Lamb’s attorney Adam Baker said in a press release. “You can’t put someone into an enclosed metal box in the middle of summer in New Mexico, for hours on end, without air-conditioning. Everyone knows that’s dangerous.” The inhumane treatment of Lamb and other prisoners is shockingly common in the state of New Mexico. 

The lawsuit filed by Lamb against the NMCD comes after another lawsuit filed by Isaha Casias. Casias won a lawsuit against the NMCD for a related case caused by his unnecessary exposure to heat. When Casias was transported from Las Lunas to a correctional facility in Hobbs, Casias and 11 prisoners were forced to endure extreme heat for hours on end. The prisoners complained about the heat to the guards, but to no avail. On the way to the correctional facility, the van they were transported in made several stops at facilities along the way, and at each stop, the inmates were left in the van without air conditioning or ventilation. It was reported that the inmates were left in the van at one of these stops for 45 minutes. Casias and others lost consciousness multiple times and had to receive medical treatment when they arrived at Hobbs. 

Casias won his lawsuit against NMCD for $2 million.

Lamb’s and Casia’s cases are just the latest examples of the conditions inmates in many southern states endure every summer. In 2017, The Associated Press reported that over 1,000 prisoners in Texas with health issues compromised by the heat had to be moved to a more hospitable part of the facility. The problem with prisons across the south is that they are not mandated to provide air conditioning. 

The fight for air conditioning in prisons has become more and more prevalent in recent years. An aging prison population has drawn attention to the dangers that extreme heat poses to prison populations. According to Prison Policy Initiative, New Mexico’s prison population mirrors the national average, with nearly 10 percent over the age of 55.  

New Mexico has dramatically reduced its number of prisoners through a series of prison reforms in the last few years. Still, the reforms are nowhere near enough in addressing the cruel conditions that many at-risk prisoners face. As cases continue to mount for unnecessary and potentially life-threatening exposure to extreme heat, New Mexico lawmakers will hopefully be forced to take initiative to end this cruel punishment and become a leader among southern states in addressing this problem.  

“You would think the Department would have heard the wake-up call following the Casias verdict,” New Mexico Prison & Jail Project Director Steven Robert Allen said in a recent press release. “It’s disturbing that NMCD would continue to transport inmates in these decrepit, dangerous vans.” 

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