Emails show NM Corrections was aware of prison strike before lockdowns

Organizers, inmates in Lea County confirm strike activity there; prison officials deny it

One day before staff at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs restricted hundreds of inmates' access to showers and hot meals, the state's top prison official sent out a department-wide warning that prisoners across the country were planning to take part in a nationwide prison strike.

Shortly after, on Aug. 20, the New Mexico Corrections Department announced a statewide lockdown at all 11 of its prisons. It was just a day ahead of when the well-publicized strike was set to begin. The Corrections Department has always insisted, and continues to insist, that the lockdown was part of a routine security check, and not prompted by fears of the strike reaching New Mexico's prisons.

But according to strike organizers as well as people currently and formerly incarcerated at Lea County, hundreds of inmates in four housing units there began their strike action sooner—refusing to return to their cells on Aug. 8. These accounts, as well as internal corrections emails obtained by SFR and the Hobbs News-Sun through a records request, suggest that the impending nationwide strike, at least in part, drove the Corrections Department's decision to lock all its prisons down.

Inmates, organizers and allegations detailed in lawsuits against the Lea County lock-up and its officials described for SFR and the News-Sun a prison rife with overly punitive restrictions, poor conditions and abusive guards. One man called it a "civil rights violations factory." It was against that backdrop, organizers and inmates' families say, that some prisoners in Hobbs decided to engage in disobedience earlier this year.

On Aug. 19, Kevin Kempf, executive director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, wrote to New Mexico Corrections Secretary David Jablonski to warn of the strike. By that time, Jablonski had already promised in a press release that Lea County inmates involved in the Aug. 8 disturbance would be "held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

"Lots of talk happening on social media about an inmate prison strike taking place August 21st," Kempf wrote to Jablonski late on the night of Aug. 19. In the email, Kempf cited a news article that said American prisoners were "demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery."

The next day, on Aug. 20, Jablonski forwarded Kempf's email to top Corrections Department officials. The department announced the statewide lockdown on its Facebook page later that day. The prison strike began on Aug. 21.

Despite this timeline, department spokesman SU Mahesh says the lockdown was already planned and was not motivated by fears of strike activity in New Mexico.

"We also did not have any threats of inmate strikes or inmates actually participating in a protest or strike in any of our prisons," Mahesh tells SFR and the News-Sun in an email.

However, in addition to a timeline that casts doubt on the department's claim, an internal memo obtained by SFR from inside the Lea County prison reveals that officials there were scouring for "participants" in disruptive behavior immediately before the national strike was set to begin.

The memo outlines a four-week step-down punishment protocol, starting on Aug. 20. Showers were restricted to three a week and hot meals to two a day. Phone and visitation privileges were completely suspended. Such "privileges" would be gradually reintroduced based on good behavior, the memo states.

According to several inmates, the lockdown was punishment for the Aug. 8 disturbance. Selinda Guerrero, an Albuquerque-based organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico, says about 300 inmates at Lea County refused to return to their cells that day partially because the prison began restricting visitations.

"We included the Hobbs facility because their uprising was concerning the same things, including conditions of confinement [and] being denied basic human rights," Guerrero says.

The Aug. 8 disturbance was part of a pattern of coordinated disobedience that has become a regular feature of life at the Lea County lock-up, which is operated by the private prison behemoth GEO Group.

John Gamble, an inmate at Lea County, says that in addition to not returning to their cells on Aug. 8, some inmates took two guards hostage and attempted to flood a housing unit through coordinated toilet flushing. Guards dumped tear gas into the area to get the inmates out.

The immediate cause of the disobedience was prison officials' decision to reduce visitation hours, according to another inmate, who asked SFR and the News-Sun not to publish his name. The former Hobbs prisoner, who was transferred out of Lea County in late August for participating in disobedience, confirms that some inmates who participated were aware of the nationwide strike and acted in the spirit of the upcoming 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," says the prisoner.

Lea County has been the site of at least four lockdowns this year, according to Gamble, who says harsh crackdowns under the previous warden, RC Smith, have deepened resentment among prisoners.

Gamble says the past warden took away privileges that once made life inside more tolerable. He implemented cuts to visiting hours, the elimination of sports tournaments and suspended access to recreational centers and drug rehabilitation programs.

"To add a visual of just how crazy it was, he even took the basketball nets off the poles," says Gamble, 26, who is serving a 60-year sentence for a murder he committed as a teenager.

When officials limited access to toilet paper earlier this year, inmates staged a hunger strike in March, which eventually resulted in a lockdown.

Since the August lockdown, prisoners have continued to see rolling lockdowns, most recently in response to allegations that shanks—a kind of crude, prison-made edged weapon—were circulating through one of the prison's community programs. Violent conditions have been a regular part of the prison since it opened in 1998, according to decades of news reports and inmate lawsuits.

Prison officials may be exacerbating violence among inmates by restricting visitor access to the Lea County lock-up, according to Barron Jones, a prison policy coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

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

In the last year, inmates went from three visiting days to one. Officials removed 85 tables in a large visiting room, leaving just 15. While prison visiting areas are supposed to be a taste of a more comfortable and normal life for inmates, SFR and the News-Sun saw the visiting area of the prison, and it was a cold and desolate auditorium where voices echoed off gleaming tile floors.

Family members drive hours from around the state to see their incarcerated loved ones and reportedly get turned away. Gamble said he saw a prison guard end a family visit, telling an inmate's mother there wasn't enough space when there were no other visitors in line.

"The guy's mom was trying to hold it together. She didn't understand," Gamble says.

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