Lawsuit: NM inmates illegally subjected to 'degrading' strip searches

Repeated searches for drugs and inadequate cleanup showed 'deliberate indifference,' suit says


Danielle Prokop
Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE COUNTY, N.M. — Two inmates are accusing the New Mexico Department of Corrections of negligence and violations of their constitutional rights in a lawsuit, alleging they were subjected to unsanitary and degrading strip searches at a state prison south of Roswell.

One of the plaintiffs also alleges prison guards forced him to go through his own stool sample at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe, where both men — Nathaniel Harvey and Renaldo Vallejos — are being held, according to court documents.

Two inmates being held at the Penitentiary of New Mexico have filed a lawsuit alleging unsanitary and degrading strip searches at another state prison. (Photo/New Mexico Corrections Department)
Two inmates being held at the Penitentiary of New Mexico have filed a lawsuit alleging unsanitary and degrading strip searches at another state prison. (Photo/New Mexico Corrections Department)

Albuquerque attorney Stephen Lawless filed an initial complaint on behalf of the men in September in the state’s 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque. It listed as defendants the Corrections Department, four guards at the Roswell Correctional Center near Hagerman, three unnamed guards at the Penitentiary of New Mexico and both state prisons.

Lawyer Stephen Shanor at Hinkle Shanor LLP, who represents the Corrections Department, filed a motion Friday to move the case to U.S. District Court, saying the state does not have jurisdiction over the constitutional claims in the complaint.

Neither Lawless nor Shanor could be reached Saturday for comment on the lawsuit. A Corrections Department spokesman also could not be reached to comment.

According to the lawsuit, Harvey and Vallejos were accused of having drugs “inside them” in October 2018, when both were inmates at the Roswell Correctional Center. Corrections officers followed procedures for a visual strip search, the complaint says. Under state policy, this means inmates disrobe, open their mouths and bend over at the waist.

But the officers then forced the inmates “to insert their own fingers into their own anus” without gloves while three officers watched, the suit says.

The inmates say they were later told to put their fingers in their mouths — without first being offered an opportunity to wipe, wash or disinfect their hands — “to apparently show there were no drugs hidden.”

The complaint says the officers “laughed and made derogatory remarks,” in violation of Corrections Department policy.

The lawsuit says there were no medical personnel present, and the guards had no search warrant or authorization from the prison warden for body cavity searches. By forcing the inmates to use their own hands for the search, the suit says, the officers were attempting to avoid the need to follow cavity search procedures.

Both plaintiffs say they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident.

The men were transferred to a prison south of Santa Fe, according to the lawsuit, where they underwent body scans. Vallejos was placed in the general prison population, while Harvey was put in a cell without a toilet, the suit alleges. Often called “dry cells,” units without plumbing are used in an effort to prevent drug smuggling. Prisoners have to notify corrections officers when they need to use a bathroom.

Harvey was told to give officers a stool sample in the cell, the lawsuit says, but was not provided with toilet paper, soap, water or disinfectant. Officers instructed him to put the pan containing the sample on the windowsill and go through it with two tongue depressors to show the guards there were no drugs in it, the suit says.

Harvey was given another body scan and was placed in a dry cell for another day, according to the suit. He had his urine and stool collected again and was never given toilet paper.

Corrections officials’ continued searches for drugs and inadequate cleanup “constitute humiliation and deliberate indifference” for Harvey, the complaint says.

The Corrections Department does not have a specific policy regarding dry cells or stool analysis posted on its website, but a policy for drug-testing using urinalysis says an inmate must have access to an area with “reasonable” security and sanitation and “should be allowed” to wash their hands after taking a sample.

The policy requires urinalysis testing to be performed by a trained staff member.

Harvey and Vallejos are requesting compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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