*Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a quote from ACLU-NM
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court has released its opinion on why they decided to dismiss a lawsuit asking the state to release prisoners to ensure their safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Published Thursday, the unanimous opinion explains why Supreme Court Justices think the lawsuit shouldn’t move forward.
In August of 2020, several prison inmates, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed the lawsuit against the state. They asked that New Mexico reduce the state’s prison population due to allegedly unsafe conditions resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks. The lawsuit also asked the state to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols were in place.
Two months after the lawsuit was filed, a Santa Fe district court dismissed the lawsuit. Their reasoning: The court decided that the inmates involved hadn’t gone through the proper channels to submit complaints to the state’s corrections department before filing the lawsuit, according to a press release from the courts.
The case then went to the state’s highest court, the New Mexico Supreme Court. They ultimately agreed to dismiss the lawsuit following a similar line of reasoning.
None of the inmates who filed the lawsuit had filed a grievance with the New Mexico Department of Corrections, the Supreme Court noted. And that requirement “cannot be circumvented by bringing claims through a representative entity [i.e. the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico].”
Despite this lawsuit being dismissed, some New Mexican inmates did get released from prison in an effort to reduce prison populations during COVID-19. That release was initiated by an executive order from the Governor.
KRQE News 13 previously reported that those released were required to meet strict conditions, including having an original release date no more than 30 days away and that the individual not be accused of certain crimes including domestic abuse or felony DWI.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico says they’re disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision and opinion to uphold the dismissal of the 2020 lawsuit. Their staff attorney, Lalita Moskowitz, says it’s a matter of proper oversight.
“We are extremely disappointed in the result of this case which positions NMCD to be judge and jury in almost every instance where an incarcerated person raises concerns about the conditions in prisons,” Moskowitz says. “This a particularly dangerous time to erect even more barriers for incarcerated people whose voices need to be heard.”
In addition to pushing the state’s corrections department to ensure inmate safety via release, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has also asked the federal government to release certain prisoners facing alleged unsafe conditions. In March of this year, they joined several other advocacy groups calling for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release all detainees at the Torrance County Detention Center.