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New Mexico Blood Money

For two days in February, 1980, New Mexico prisoners seized control of the state penitentiary in Santa Fe. When it was over, 33 prisoners were dead, hundreds more were hurt, the gym was burned to a shell and the cell blocks, offices and other areas were extensively damaged. Elected and appointed officials responded by appropriating millions of dollars for prison construction and reconstruction, settling a 3-year-old lawsuit on prison conditions with a consent decree affecting virtually every aspect of prison life, and starting to plan the defense against civil lawsuits for the prisoners' deaths and injuries.

About 540 prisoners and their survivors (of 1,157 prisoners at the time of the uprising) filed notices that they intended to sue. One-hundred-twenty-four cases were eventually filed over the years, and 77 of those were dismissed.

The state's risk managers and attorneys gave an early estimate that compensating damages to prisoners and their families could reach about $4 million. So they schemed to limit this "potential liability" and eventually succeeded so well that $2.1 million was left over from the fund set up to pay for prisoners' claims. The statute of limitations for such lawsuits has expired and the leftover millions have now been given back to the state.

The state's defense lawyers for these suits - which included five of the best-paid law firms in New Mexico - tried a variety of ways to keep the awards to prisoners and their survivors small. Two strategies were ultimately successful. Prison supply companies involved in "improvements" to the pen in 1979-80 were threatened with suits and agreed to pay 40% of each prisoner/survivor award.

The state also decided to negotiate and settle the prisoner suits, rather than go to trial, provided that the amount of the settlements and even their existence were kept secret by all parties.

A final report on the cases, issued by three of the law firms in June 1995, says this secrecy was critical because publicity would have made it "difficult to ever negotiate a cheaper settlement," and "If inmates learned that a settlement 'pot' of nearly $3 million existed and that settlement money could perhaps be obtained without the expense of a trial, it was feared that nearly every inmate in the Penitentiary might have filed a lawsuit."

Thirty-two wrongful death cases were settled for an average of $19,956 each to the families. Fifteen personal injury cases were settled for an average of $5,298 to each of the prisoners. These figures include whatever fees went to lawyers for the prisoners and their families. The state paid $433,039 of the total settlements of $718,065. The state's attorneys' fees for their total defense work averaged $32,504 per case, not counting costs reimbursed for travel and other expenses.

2.1 million dollars in payments and interest from the state's insurance and supply companies is now a bonus for the state budget. As the state's lieutenant governor said, "We do believe this is a valuable history lesson, and something we should never forget."

Excerpted from: Coalition For Prisoners' Rights Newsletter, July 1995, PO Box 1911, Santa Fe NM 87504-1911.

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