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Lawsuit Filed Over Rodent Infestation at New Mexico Prison

by David M. Reutter

For many years, the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility (WNMCF) has had a “horrific and widespread” rodent infestation that makes the prison “a dangerous place.” Those allegations form the basis for a lawsuit filed in federal court by two former WNMCF prisoners.

The lawsuit was filed on February 1, 2021 on behalf of Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia by attorney Steven R. Allen of the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project. The complaint alleged an Eighth Amendment claim and a state law negligence claim.

WNMCF is a 390 bed women’s prison located in Cibola County, which had the fourth highest amount of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), a severe respiratory illness carried by rodents, in the state despite having state’s the 17th highest number of residents. The complaint alleged that in addition to HPS, rodents can also carry many different kinds of illnesses and diseases.

Several very disturbing incidents were alleged. The rodent infestation was “enormous” in WNMCF’s kitchen. Zapata and Garcia alleged they “regularly witnessed rodents crawling across for that was about to be served to” prisoners. Both former prisoners were assigned to the kitchen with Zapata being assigned from November 2017 to December and Garcia worked there from March 2018 through February 2019.

On one occasion, Zapata witnessed a rodent jump into a pot of stew. Another prisoner scooped it out, but Besheen Estevan, an employee of Summit Food Service who oversaw food service at WNMCF, demanded that prisoners working under her serve the contaminated stew. Those prisoners threw the stew out. When Estevan learned of that, she made those prisoners perform extra duty as punishment.

Zapata alleged that while working in the kitchen’s storeroom, she regularly came across bags of cake mix and other food that rodents had ate holes into. Staff told her to put the bags into a plastic bag so it could be used later.

Garcia alleged she was once eating a hamburger patty when she noticed it had rodent feces on it. A guard told her it was just burnt, but the patties were precooked and baked she “knew that the incongruous brown splotch on the hamburger patty was rodent feces.
The rodent infestation was so pervasive that when the kitchen was opened in the morning, the first thing that occurred was the cleaning of rodent feces. “The distinctive sour, putrid smell of rodent urine, rodent feces, and decaying rodent bodies was a constant presence in and near the prison’s kitchen and cafeteria,” the complaint alleges.

Kitchen operators were given advance notice of inspections and ordered a thorough cleaning to hide violations of state law. Despite that, inspectors regularly noted the presence of rodent feces and holes in the walls leading into the dry storage area.

Both Zapata and Garcia alleged they suffered from food poisoning as a result of contaminated food. Their lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the traumatization they suffered while imprisoned at WNMCF, which caused them to suffer ongoing anxiety. See: Zapata et al v. Yatesl. USDC, D NM, Case No. 1:21-cv-00083-MV-JFR. 

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Related legal case

Zapata et al v. Yatesl