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$2 Million Awarded to New Mexico Prisoner Left in Hot Transport Van

by Ed Lyon

Each year, throughout the duration of summer months, there are empathy-invoking news stories about children and pets left in unattended vehicles, sometimes resulting in deaths due to the scorching heat. A New Mexico federal jury recently held that prisoners should not be left in unattended transport vans during hot temperatures, and awarded $2 million in damages. 

Isaha Casias, 36, was held by the New Mexico Department of Corrections (DOC) from May 2013 to August 2014. On July 11, 2013, he and several other prisoners from the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas boarded a transport van bound for a facility in Hobbs. The van was equipped with air conditioning that required the engine to be on in order for it to work. There was a hole in the back of the vehicle so air could exhaust. As is the case with nearly all prison systems, the van had to make several stops at other facilities en route to Hobbs in order to offload and pick up prisoners. Guards Herman Gonzales and Taracina Morgan were the transport officers on this particular run.

At the first stop, Morgan opened the rear doors so the prisoners could get some air. During the 30 minutes they were stopped, the heat in the van became oppressive and the prisoners told Morgan it was very hot. Morgan told them to “stop acting like pussies” and “tough it out.” The wind blew one of the rear doors shut, making the heat level worse, but Morgan would not reopen it. When the prisoners again complained, she told them: “Be patient. My kids can handle more than this.” Gonzales eventually returned with two more prisoners. Cramming them into the crowded van, there were now 11 sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. 

The next stop was at 12:30 p.m. Gonzales and Morgan left the prisoners in the enclosed van, in the noontime desert sun, refusing to even open the doors for ventilation. They told the prisoners to “just deal with it.” During the 45 minutes that Gonzales and Morgan were gone, the shackled men yelled for help and many of them lost consciousness, Casias three times. One prisoner later said he “literally began to cook.” 

When the guards returned and opened the rear door to load another prisoner, the unconscious Casias fell out, hitting his face and head on the van’s rear bumper. He then had a seizure. A guard assigned to that facility called a medical emergency on his radio. Medical staff diagnosed the prisoners with high blood pressure and dehydration, and wanted to keep them for treatment, especially Casias. Gonzales and Morgan refused, but allowed each prisoner to receive a single cup of water before resuming their journey.

Because the van was already too full, the pick-up prisoner was returned to his unit. Medical staff again tried to keep at least Casias for treatment. Gonzales and Morgan again refused. It was “too much paperwork,” they said. Casias became ill on the way to the next facility, dry-heaving phlegm because he was so dehydrated. 

Medical staff were waiting for the van at its next stop. Gonzales and Morgan forbade the prisoners to speak to the nurses; they were each given a sack lunch but nothing to drink. While there was a sink in the holding cell, they could not turn on the water due to their restraints, which included waist chains.

Finally arriving at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs around 8:30 p.m., the prisoners told medical staff, who were once again awaiting their arrival, what had occurred during the trip. Gonzales and Morgan dismissed their factual accounts as lies, warned Hobbs security staff not to give the prisoners their names, then departed. 

“It was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” Casias stated. “There are no words to express how horrible it was.”

Some of the prisoners began receiving medical treatment for their ordeal the next day but Casias was not seen until July 23, 2013 – eleven days later. Corizon Health, the nation’s largest private medical provider for prisons and jails, held the New Mexico DOC contract at that time. [See: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.60]. Casias said he suffers from chronic wrist and back pain due to his fall from the van; he also has post-traumatic stress disorder, part of which is a recurring nightmare of being cooked alive in an oven.

Casias was represented in his lawsuit against Gonzales, Morgan and the DOC by Albuquerque attorney Matthew E. Coyle. During the case-in-chief, deposition testimony from the other prisoners in the van was presented to the jury in lieu of live testimony. None of those prisoners could be made to go near a prison transport van for the ride to court, or anywhere else. 

In a rare verdict, on April 4, 2019 the federal jury found the DOC shared vicarious liability with Gonzales and Morgan, and awarded Casias $1,000,000 in compensatory damages against all the defendants.

The jury also awarded $500,000 each in punitive damages against Gonzales and Morgan, bringing the total award to $2 million. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on July 2, 2019, and awarded $309,834.50 in attorney fees plus $6,301.29 in costs to Casias. See: Casias v. State of New Mexico Dep’t of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:16-cv-00056-JMC-SCY.

According to April 2019 news reports, Morgan and Gonzales are still employed by the New Mexico DOC, even though an internal investigation found they had violated department policy. 

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Additional sources: usnews.com, journal-news.com

Related legal case

Casias v. State of New Mexico Dep’t of Corrections