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$750,000 Settlement in New Mexico “Controlled Seating” Lawsuit

On September 2013, a proposed settlement was filed in a lawsuit over forcibly seating prisoners “nuts-to-butts” for hours at a time at a New Mexico state prison – a practice also known as “controlled seating.” The settlement provides $750,000 to be divided among the class members after incentive payments to the class representatives, attorney fees, expenses and the costs of administering the settlement.

The class-action lawsuit was originally two separate suits filed against prison officials, one of which was brought in state court and the other in federal court. Both alleged violations of the prisoners’ civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The state action was removed to federal court and the two cases were then consolidated.

The complaint described incidents that occurred four times at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in 2009 and 2010 under Warden Anthony Romero, who allegedly implemented a policy of intimidation and abuse of prisoners. The specific incidents involved a practice called “nuts-to-butts” by the plaintiffs and “controlled seating” by the defendants. It involved prisoners being stripped to their boxer shorts, manhandled and thrown against a wall by masked, armed guards, then forced to sit front-to-back in a line with their legs straddling and genitals touching the buttocks of the prisoner in front of them.

Prisoners subjected to “controlled seating” were required to hold this humiliating position for hours, sometimes with their fingers intertwined and hands on their heads so they had to use their naked thighs to grip the prisoner in front of them to support their weight. Those who were unable or unwilling to sit “nuts-to-butts” were thrown against the wall and physically and verbally abused. Many prisoners believed they would be shot by the shotgun-carrying guards if they failed to maintain the position.

No toilet breaks were allowed and some prisoners urinated on themselves. They and the other prisoners around them were then forced to continue sitting in the pool of urine.

Warden Romero allegedly told the prisoners they were his “bitches” and that he could make them sit “nuts-to-butts” any time he wanted and would do so unless they all showed what he considered to be proper respect to his officers.

The prisoners were represented by Albuquerque attorneys Matthew Coyte and Jack Bennett Jacks, who negotiated a settlement of $750,000 for the 422 class members subjected to “controlled seating.” According to the settlement agreement, the funds will be distributed as follows: $10,000 to each of the six named class representatives, $250,000 in attorney fees, $27,683.83 in costs and sales tax, and up to $20,000 for claims administration.

The remainder of the settlement is to be divided among the class members according to how many file a claim and how many times they were subjected to “controlled seating.” The minimum payment to a class member is $528.73 for one incident, $1,057.46 for two, $1,586.19 for three incidents and $2,114.92 for four. The defendants also agreed to change DOC policy to specify that “No inmate shall be made to sit straddling another inmate with less than approximately one foot gap between the inmates.”

“We’ve come a long way,” said Coyte. “It took two years to get to this point, in the face of denials that it happened at all.”

The district court granted preliminary approval of the proposed settlement in July 2014. A fairness hearing was held on November 13, 2014, and the court entered final approval of the settlement six days later. Only one class member objected to the settlement. See: Oates v. Dorsey, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:11-cv-00254-MCA-GBW.

Meanwhile, Warden Romero was promoted to Deputy Director of the New Mexico DOC’s Adult Prisons Division.


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Related legal case

Oates v. Dorsey