Called the New Mexico Prison and Jails Project (PJP), it is headed by seasoned civil rights attorneys and sponsored in part by the Texas Civil Rights Project. One of the attorneys on PJP’s steering committee, Matthew Coyte, said one of the organization’s goals is to advocate for better treatment of all prisoners in New Mexico, including county jails and private prisons. He says there aren’t enough lawyers willing to sue on behalf of prisoners.
“So this project, the PJP, is designed to fill that gap, to fill that void and to create an environment where we can bring multiple lawsuits against the prison or jail system to create change, to bring publicity,” he said.
Coyte previously sued NMCD on behalf of a man held in solitary confinement for almost two years at a county jail without a trial. That prisoner, Kevin Sloan, has since died, but the case was settled in 2013 for more than $15 million against Dona Ana County.
One way the Project is advocating for New Mexico prisoners is by ensuring that the public is aware of what goes on in New Mexico prisons and jails. And the group wasted no time in demanding access to complaints filed by prisoners under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), a state law requiring open access to public records held by government offices, like NMCD. When NMCD dragged its feet fulfilling the Project’s IPRA request filed in October 2020, it sued in Santa Fe County Court in December.
The lawsuit claims that NMCD’s responses to the Project’s IPRA requests “were so fundamentally inadequate and unreasonable that they are the equivalent of not responding to the [records request] at all.”
PJP director Steven Robert Allen signed the lawsuit and said this about the case: “I think it’s particularly ironic that we have this lawsuit against the Corrections Department for violating IPRA because all we were doing was asking them for their policies and practices for what they’re doing to comply with IPRA.” Allen was the policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico before becoming PJP’s director.
Coyte said making sure NMCD’s records are available to the public is a key to helping to ensure prisoners are treated properly. “I think everyone knows that prisons and jails are secretive places. The public doesn’t really have an awareness of what happens behind closed doors of the prison and jail,” he said. “And thus abuse is allowed to occur without great check or balance on things because the public eye isn’t there.”
Allen said any money won by the lawsuits will be reinvested into further litigation aimed at improving prison conditions.
PJP steering committee member Cathy Ansheles said the governor is directly responsible for prisoner health and safety. “Our governor and her staff with the Corrections Department are not doing enough,” she said. “Attention needs to be paid to all New Mexico residents. People in prison are the loved ones of people in our communities.”
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