DOC limiting Lea County prisoners’ showers, meals as group punishment

Audio and documentation obtained by SFR indicate retaliation for civil disobedience by inmates

Prison officials at the Lea County Correctional Facility near Hobbs appear to be limiting some inmates' access to showers and withholding hot food in retaliation for alleged acts of civil disobedience, according to an internal memo obtained by SFR and a source who was recently incarcerated there.

The memo suggests that prison officials are punishing all inmates through a lockdown and other means in the prison's Unit 4 pod, although it does not specify what prompted the crackdown besides "disruptive behavior" and "security reasons."

An audio recording of a conversation with one inmate who was recently transferred out of the Lea County prison indicates that tensions inside are reaching a boiling point.

SFR forwarded the lockdown memo, which was sent to the newspaper anonymously, to New Mexico Corrections Department spokesman SU Mahesh, who had not authenticated it after 24 hours.

But an activist who is in touch with prisoners at the Lea County prison and their families confirmed it as authentic.

The memo appears to have been distributed on or immediately before Aug. 20. The Corrections Department had announced on its Facebook page that day a statewide lockdown at 11 prisons. On Aug. 27, the DOC posted to its page that the lockdown had been lifted.

However, the department's website currently says the Lea County prison remains locked down until further notice.

None of the posts mention the restriction of hot food and showers. After reviewing the memo, Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte said it was unlikely scaling back food and showers had anything to do with genuine security concerns.

"It is outrageous when a prison punishes people by removing access to food or hygiene. These are basic necessities and their removal for punitive reasons is a violation of the constitution and international law," Coyte writes to SFR in an email.

The memo says that that officials at the prison, which is operated by the private prison company GEO Group via a contract with the state, are continuing to identify people involved in apparently coordinated disruptive behavior.

"Although some participants have been identified, all have yet to be identified," it says. "Those who have been identified will have the accrual of good time suspended during this lockdown. All others, will continue to accumulated [sic] good time."

The document outlines a four-week step-down punishment protocol for prisoners who display acceptable behavior.

During the first week, noted to be Aug. 20 through Aug. 27, prisoners are only allowed to take three 10-minute showers a week and receive one "sack meal" and two hot meals. No visitations or phone calls are allowed, and correspondence with attorneys must pass through a case manager.

In week two, prisoners are allowed three hot meals, but showers remain restricted and there is still no access to visits or phones. In week three, which runs from Sept. 3 through Sept. 10, inmates can still only take three showers but regain limited visitation and phone privileges.

During the final week, slated to be the last before the lockdown is lifted, prisoners once again have access to a common day room where they eat a noon and evening meal and are allowed recreation time, phone calls and visits.

SFR is providing public access to the document here.

The DOC has previously denied to SFR that the lockdowns were in anticipation of a well-publicized nationwide prison strike with a start date of Aug. 21, one day after New Mexico announced the statewide lockdown.

Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which has helped coordinate protests inside and outside prisons, previously told SFR that about 300 inmates in three separate housing units at the Lea County prison refused to return to their cells on Aug. 9. The civil disobedience came in response to corrections staff limiting familial visits and harassing visitors, Guerrero said.

Corrections officials confirmed the incident, but said it happened on Aug. 8.

Rather than soothing the situation inside, one inmate who was recently among several transferred out of the Lea County prison says that the indiscriminate punishment has made people angrier. The prisoner did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. SFR reviewed recordings of the inmate describing his experience and perspective.

"You're taking everything and anything away from them," the inmate says, including from people who weren't involved in disruptions. "You're agitating them, they're going to rise, they're going to rebel, they're going to get tired. … You have individuals who don't deserve being locked down in their cell and don't deserve starving, eating cold food, or showering every three days, or taking a shit in front of your [cell mate]."

The prisoner also acknowledged the ongoing nationwide prison strike: "This is a nationwide fight and hopefully we can learn something from [prisoners protesting elsewhere], and hopefully we can change shit where we're at," he says.

In response to SFR's emailed questions, DOC spokesperson SU Mahesh said only one pod in Unit Four remained on week one-level restrictions.

The American Civil Liberties Union is among numerous groups that have endorsed the strike. Barron Jones, who works on criminal justice policy for the ACLU of New Mexico, noted to SFR that the lockdown at the Lea County prison and elsewhere in the state coincided with the dates of the prison strike.

"While lockdowns are usually initiated to address safety concerns,  it seems unfair to lock down the entire facility and deprive prisoners of visits and phone calls because corrections officials object to a few inmates 'cursing and arguing with staff,'" Jones says, referencing the lockdown memo obtained by SFR. "Such minor misconduct by a handful of inmates shouldn't lead to the lockdown of an entire prison."

Jones, who spent time in prison himself a decade ago, says he once participated in a prison strike at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas.

"Research shows prisoners who are allowed to maintain much-needed family support while incarcerated have a much easier time transitioning once released," Jones adds.

Among the demands of those participating in the nationwide prison strike are the abolition of low-to-no wage labor performed by prisoners as well as an end to inhumane conditions, systemic racism and institutional barriers to redress.

SFR explored inmate labor in New Mexico in a June cover story.

About 300 inmates in New Mexico working at seven different prisons across the state are paid 40 cents to $2.25 an hour for their labor, according to the DOC, and prisoner-made goods and services brought in about $21 million in revenue for the department over the last two years.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the prison strike demands were outlined by incarcerated men in South Carolina. While the call for a strike originated at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina following a riot there in April, prisoners in other parts of the country contributed to the final list of demands.
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