by Derek Gilna
Six female prison guards employed by the New Mexico Corrections Department (DOC) at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF) in Los Lunas entered into a $2.5 million settlement with the department in late January 2018, though the terms of the agreement were not made public until July.
The six guards – Mary Kennedy, Niadra Lemons, Allison Eastman, Antoinette De La Cruz, Benita Joe and Nicole Romero – filed a complaint in state court in 2015 that alleged a “culture of physical aggression and open, ratified sexual misconduct” at CNMCF.
The lawsuit accused 25 current and former male DOC employees of “unthinkable and constant sexually based violence and harassment,” alleging they urinated and masturbated in front of the plaintiffs, fondled and groped them, screamed sexist comments and obscene names, propositioned them, and sent unwanted sexual pictures and videos. Although their actions were known to supervisory staff, no remedial action was taken.
One of the plaintiffs said male colleagues phoned her repeatedly at work, demanding sex and calling her a “fucking bitch.” Another reported that on a dry-erase board, in clear view of supervisors, was written the phrase: “If you don’t swallow then you should quit.”
As a result, female guards at the facility faced “a greater threat to their personal safety from their fellow correctional officers and supervisors than from the inmates,” the complaint stated.
Former Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel and former Deputy Secretary Joe Booker were among the defendants initially named in the suit, which accused them of ignoring allegations and evidence of sexual harassment. But a state district court judge dismissed them in 2017, determining the plaintiffs had failed to meet their evidentiary burden.
The attorney representing the six female guards, Laura Schauer Ives, said she hoped their lawsuit would shine a light on “the hyper-sexualized environment” at CNMCF, so that “other women will be heard in the future, that they’ll be more likely to be believed, and that most importantly, [the plaintiffs] just hope it doesn’t happen.”
After the suit was filed, five DOC employees were placed on administrative leave. The 143-page complaint described numerous incidents in which the plaintiffs were verbally harassed by male co-workers in the most graphic terms, referring to female body parts and bodily functions, and generally indicating the male officers’ opinions that each of the women should be home taking care of children. The lawsuit also noted that when the plaintiffs filed complaints, they were subjected to retaliation and further abuse.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, neither the State of New Mexico nor the numerous current and former male prison employees and officials named as defendants were required to admit fault. DOC spokesman S.U. Mahesh stated, “The settlement speaks for itself.” See: Kennedy v. Secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department, First Judicial District Court (NM), Case No. D-101-CV-2015-00397.
However, a controversy erupted over when the terms of the settlement could be made public. State law requires a 180-day waiting period, which typically outlasts public interest in the outcome of the litigation.
“While this particular case was dismissed on January 26, 2018, the Risk Management Division continued receiving and paying related invoices until May 29, 2018,” said General Services Division General Counsel Alexis Johnson. “The file was closed on July 28, 2018, 60 days after payment of the last invoice.”
That would delay release of the settlement terms until late January 2019, after Governor Susana Martinez leaves office. But Schauer Ives pointed to the language of the state statute, which says “the public has no right of access to any settlement agreement or the amount of the settlement for 180 days from the settlement” – which would allow the terms to be publicized in late July 2018.
“It is unfortunate the state has defaulted to secrecy instead of having the important and timely conversations about this issue that are necessary to move forward,” she said.
The settlement agreement did not include any policy changes or other reforms with respect to how the DOC addresses employee sexual harassment, meaning future abuse – as well as additional litigation and payouts by prison officials – is likely.
Sources: www.abqjournal.com, www.nmpoliticalreport.com, www.santafenewmexican.com
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