For several years, the abusive treatment of women prisoners in New Mexico has been almost completely ignored. Though well aware of significant problems, both Department of Corrections officials and the local press have long ignored the situation. It was only when a series of high-profile lawsuits were recently filed that the conditions and treatment of prisoners in the state re-entered headlines.
The New Mexico prison system operates two medium-level prisons for women inmates. One is located near Grants, an hour west of Albuquerque, and the other is located in Springer, in the rural northeast of the state. The facility in Springer provides the clearest example of this oppressive system.
Women’s prisons show a pattern of abuse
Originally constructed in 1909 as the New Mexico School for Boys, Springer was closed in 2005 and then taken over by the New Mexico Department of Corrections. It was reopened in 2016 as the Springer Correctional Facility. The majority of prisoners are poor women of color. Many are non-violent offenders and already victims of sexual abuse.
The reopening took place under Governor Susanna Martinez — a neoconservative Republican. Major problems for the prisoners began almost immediately. A culture of permissiveness, abuse and sexual oppression by prison guards quickly developed.
During the following six years, prisoners began protesting as guards and officials created a culture of abuse without accountability. In one fairly typical example, one woman reported that she was violated by three different prison guards. She stated that one guard raped her multiple times. She was forced to wait three years before prison officials responded.
These serious violations attracted the attention of the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. A series of lawsuits by the ACLU and individual inmates’ lawyers called greater attention to the terrible conditions and illegal treatment. As the lawsuits grew in number and scope, the extent of the problems became more apparent.
The lawsuits depict regular accusations of abuse and a clear pattern of failure by officials to respond. One corrections officer was accused of harassing seven women, but he continued to work in the prison for three more years before any action was taken. Women prisoners in New Mexico are supposed to be protected by the Prison Rape Elimination Act which allows victims to file complaints anonymously. It also provides a hotline to report abuse, but at least one prisoner reported that it never worked. From 2017 to 2019, 90 reports were filed under the act, but only eight were investigated.
The women’s prison located at Grants, New Mexico, is guilty of many of the same issues. A report by the ACLU spoke of conditions similar to those at Springer. One woman related her story of continual sexual abuse by a prison employee who impregnated her.
Investigators found other major problems at the Grants facility. Inmates complained of large populations of rats that infested the kitchen and cells within the prison. Rodent droppings were found in food, rats and mice run free in the cells, and inmates are often sickened by the feces and urine of the rodents.
Little change with new ‘progressive’ administration
In 2019, Democrat Michele Lujan Grisham replaced Martinez. Grisham promised a new era of responsive leadership, promising progressive reform across the government. Instead, she has turned out to be a neoliberal with little regard for the poor, and especially for the incarcerated. Attorney Lalita Moskowitz recently reported that women inmates are continuing to suffer the same conditions in New Mexico prisons under Grisham’s watch — conditions amplified by the shared histories of many inmates with mental health issues and gender-based violence. Current Department of Corrections officials deny her allegations, but Moskowitz continues to assert that a culture of permitted abuse persists. Grisham’s primary response has been to ignore the problems. She only began to take steps when lawsuits forced a response.
The state government is not the only entity that ignored these problems. Organizations supporting prisoners have raised these issues regarding New Mexico prisons for several years, but only now, with the announcement of the possible closing of the Springer facility, have the state’s newspapers and television stations begun to publicize the problems.
Sadly, the situation has not yet changed. Both prisons remain open and oppressive conditions continue. But the struggle of the prisoners to publicize their stories also continues. Incarcerated women are working collectively to make sure the world knows the issues that they face, and to end the abuse by guards and prison officials.
Photo: The New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants. Credit: Corecivic via Flikr CC