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Federal Court Sanctions New Mexico Corrections Department Over Out-of-State Legal Mail

by Matt Clarke

On April 18, 2019, a federal district court sanctioned the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) for failing to comply with a prior order and judgment requiring prison officials to provide a state prisoner incarcerated in Virginia with envelopes and postage so he could send legal requests and grievances to the NMCD.

Jesse Trujillo is a New Mexico prisoner incarcerated at a facility in Big Stony Gap, Virginia. Previously, Trujillo filed a federal civil rights suit that resulted in the district court ordering the NMCD to create a plan to enable Trujillo to send legal requests and grievances to New Mexico prison officials. The NMCD’s plan was to initially provide Trujillo with three pre-stamped envelopes and then, when an envelope was received from him, replace the envelope that had been used with another pre-stamped envelope.

Five years later, in August 2016, Trujillo filed a pro se motion to reopen the case and find the defendants in contempt because they had failed to comply with the postage plan. On February 12, 2018, the district court declined to reopen the case but granted enforcement of the postage plan, holding the defendants in contempt and ordering them to comply or face civil contempt sanctions.

On May 25, 2018, Trujillo filed another pro se motion, asking the court to hold the defendants in contempt for failure to comply with the postage plan and subsequent order. The NMCD defendants had not claimed they were in compliance or could not comply, arguing instead that they should not have to comply because they could not address prison conditions in Virginia. This time, they simply failed to file a timely response.

The district court had previously found the defendants were non-compliant since at least 2016, and had opted to ignore and defy the court’s orders. The defendants admitted that the NMCD director had informed Trujillo that the department would not provide any more postage-paid envelopes; they continued to argue that the burden of the postage plan was too great since the NMCD had no authority to address Trujillo’s grievances.

In an April 18, 2019 order, the district court noted that the only question it needed to address in a contempt sanction proceeding was whether the defendants had complied with the court’s orders. “The unequivocal answer is no,” it held.

The court therefore opted to sanction the defendants by ordering the NMCD to compensate Trujillo for his lost opportunities at filing grievances by providing him with 200 envelopes and 200 forever stamps. It further ordered that, should the defendants fail to comply with its sanctions order by May 20, 2019, they would be required to provide Trujillo with 200 envelopes and 200 forever stamps, plus pay him $1,000.

The district court noted it did not have the authority to order Trujillo returned to New Mexico, as he had requested. See: Trujillo v. Williams, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 6:04-cv-00635-MV-GBW; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66172. 

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Related legal case

Trujillo v. Williams