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$316,673 Settlement in New Mexico Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Stabbing at GEO-Operated Private Prison

by Matt Clarke

On October 1, 2021, the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) and the private operator of one of its prisons, the GEO Group, agreed to pay $316,673.53 to settle a lawsuit brought by a prisoner stabbed and severely injured by another prisoner at a GEO-operated state prison that was allegedly seriously understaffed in Clayton, New Mexico.

The prisoner, Dominick Michael Smith, 39, was incarcerated at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility on October 19, 2019, when a fellow prisoner reported that his cellmate, Michael Maes, 37, was being stabbed by another prisoner, Orlando Torrez, 35. Upon exiting the cell, Maes’ cellmate had pushed the “panic button” used to inform staff of a serious situation requiring immediate intervention, but he received no response.

Smith then exited his cell and pushed the panic button, but again no response was forthcoming. So he made his way to Maes’ cell, where a group of prisoners had gathered to watch the stabbing in progress. Smith managed to force his way into the cell, positioning himself between Torrez and Maes. Torrez then turned on Smith, stabbing him in the neck and hands. They struggled, and Smith managed to disentangle himself and run for help.

Smith was unable to get a guard’s attention until he pounded on the pod door and smeared its window with blood from his hands. His request to go to medical for treatment was denied for lack of guard staff to escort him. Later, he was taken to medical, and Maes was retrieved from his cell. Both were then transported to a hospital, where Smith was treated and Maes was pronounced dead.

With the assistance of Albuquerque attorney Francis Crockett Carpenter, Smith filed a federal civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against NMCD, GEO Group, and several prison staffers, accusing them of failure to protect him, in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights and various state tort laws.

The lawsuit alleged the prison was chronically understaffed, making it unsafe for prisoners and staff, and that NMCD knew about the understaffing but failed to force to GEO correct it. Specifically, it alleged that only 22 guards were working at the 625-bed medium-security prison in October 2019, instead of the required and authorized 95, and only 15 were at work at the time of the stabbing. NMCD eventually took over operation of the the prison because of the staffing issues it was having with GEO in charge.

The lawsuit further claimed Torrez was serving a 998.7-year sentence and had a history of attacking other prisoners, so he should not have been housed in an unsecure unit. It also specifically alleged that an NMCD investigative unit monitored a phone call by Torrez two weeks prior to the stabbing in which he discussed possible assaults and even killing another prisoner, but the agency did nothing to prevent him from acting out those threats.

Surveillance camera recordings captured the group of prisoners outside of Maes’s cell and showed Torrez entering it, followed later by Smith. Video then showed the two men struggling as they stepped outside the cell, where Torrez stabbed Smith. Smith’s attorney described her client as “a stand-up guy” and a “hero,” who had selflessly gone into harm’s way to save another person.

Meanwhile Torrez was charged with first-degree murder for killing Maes and possession of the homemade knife used in the attack. But the state dismissed the charges in November 2020.

The settlement included $70,499.08 paid to Smith’s attorney by NMCD, the state and its Risk Management Department, which also paid another $104,590.02 to fund periodic payments to Plaintiff. Together with $212,172.61 paid by GEO Group, the total for Plaintiff was $316,673.53. See: Smith v. New Mexico Corrections Department, USDC (D. N.M.), Case No. 2:21-cv-00187.  

Additional source: Albuquerque Journal

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