*Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect current staffing levels at the facility.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — Bernalillo County’s Metro Detention Center is facing allegations that staff and operators violated inmate civil rights and ultimately failed to prevent the death of a high-profile inmate. The lawsuit filed Friday, October 21, 2022, alleges that a correctional officer found a rope on the inmate but failed to take the rope away as per policy, along with other allegations.
The lawsuit centers around the death of Michelle Morgan, a woman accused of stabbing her boyfriend to death. According to court documents filed by an APD detective in May 2022, Morgan was arrested after allegedly being in a deadly dispute with a man in an Albuquerque apartment. According to the police’s record of a neighbor’s account, the fight may have resulted from an abusive relationship.
As prosecutors asked the court to keep Michelle Morgan behind bars while she awaited trial for murder, she died in custody at the Metro Detention Center. Now, the law firm Hall Monagle Huffman & Wallace is suing on Morgan’s family’s behalf.
“Michelle exhibited several of the most common signs that she was preparing to harm herself,” Jason Wallace, an attorney for Morgan’s estate, said in a press release. “These signs were overt, they indicated that a suicide attempt was imminent, and they were signs which should have prompted intervention by jailhouse staff.”
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The lawsuit alleges that this portion of video shows Michelle Morgan “communicating that the rope was meant to go around her head or neck.” Video clip zoomed-in and played on loop for reference from Hall Monagle Huffman & Wallace.
The complaint filed in court Friday asks that the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners, as well as the detention center’s medical contractor, Tennessee-based Corizon Health, pay for damages. The lawsuit claims that not only were facility procedures ignored but that the Bernalillo County staff may have broken the law by falsifying welfare checks.
At the root of the allegations are ongoing staffing issues at the Metropolitan Detention Center. As of Monday, October 24, there are 1,486 inmates at the facility, their data shows. Over the last few months, the facility has averaged more than 40 bookings a day.
But the facility has had some staffing issues. In June of 2022, Robert Mason, at the time a sergeant at the Metropolitan Detention Center, spoke out about the issues in a Bernalillo County Commissioner’s meeting.
“I said people can die. People have died. We’ve lost 16 lives. Someone was murdered. The pandemic isn’t to blame for our staffing issues,” he told the commissioners. “We no longer can provide a safe and secure environment. People are suffering to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. People who are at high risk of dying due to detox or risk of suicide go without being watched.”
The lawsuit claims Morgan didn’t some counseling she requested because of the lack of staffing. “She was scheduled to go to that counseling the day before she passed. But due to the lack of staffing we’re seeing at MDC right now, the [correctional officer] that was in charge made a determination that he couldn’t safely transport her from where she was staying in the facility to the counselors,” said Jason Wallace, the attorney representing Michelle Morgan’s daughter.
The lawsuit also alleges that emergency responders came to Morgan’s cell with equipment for life-saving efforts that were low on battery and did not work. Wallace says they want compensation for Morgan’s family. But it’s too early to tell what that might amount to.
“We’re asking for the family members to be compensated for the loss of life, the tragic loss of life,” Wallace told KRQE News 13. “We’re asking for closure, essentially.”
And while Michelle Morgan was facing serious charges, including slicing the Achilles tendons of the victim, Wallace says Morgan still deserved proper care under the law. “Michelle was a mom, and she was a sister,” Wallace says. “And she was showing jail guards that she needed help. And these were not cries for help that were internal,” Wallace adds. “They were things that she did outwardly that indicated that she may have been planning to harm herself.”
KRQE News 13 reached out to the Metro Detention Center for comment and information on current staffing levels. A spokesperson for the detention center says they do not comment on pending litigation. But, they say the Metro Detention Center currently only has about 50% of the correctional officers they’d need to be fully staffed.
On top of the claims against Metro Detention Center staff, the lawsuit implicates Corizon Health, a contractor working to provide health services at the Metro Detention Center. The lawsuit says they that Corizon Health workers should have also noticed signs of suicidal behavior.