Lawsuits, allegations of sexual assault plague women’s prison slated for closure

Phaedra Haywood
April 3, 2021

Springer Correctional Facility. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican.

Joseph J. Martinez was accused of abusing female inmates at Springer Correctional Center from the moment they arrived at the facility in October 2016, according to a New Mexico State Police probable cause statement in a criminal case against the former guard.

One woman told police Martinez raped her three times in the first three months she was held there.

The following spring, Martinez approached another prisoner and placed a piece of Suboxone in her eye, according to the statement. After this initial exposure, the inmate told police, Martinez provided her the drug on a regular basis. Once she became dependent on Suboxone — a pain reliever often used to treat opioid addiction — he began to demand sexual intercourse as payment.

The women reported Martinez to police in 2018, according to state police records. But it wasn’t until January of this year, nearly five years after the alleged abuse, that the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office filed criminal sexual penetration charges against him in connection with their allegations.

Attorneys for inmates housed at Springer say such allegations are not isolated. Since 2018, they have filed eight lawsuits on behalf of 11 women, contending officials at Springer fostered an environment that emboldened guards to exploit them with impunity and made them afraid to report the alleged abuse.

The lawsuits preceded the state Corrections Department’s surprising announcement late last month that it plans to shutter the women’s prison in northeast New Mexico. The department’s reasoning: The inmate population is dwindling, and its aging infrastructure is too expensive to maintain.

“Some of you may have heard that the decision to begin planning for [the prison’s] closure is due to inappropriate activities alleged to have occurred,” Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero wrote in a letter to prison employees Thursday. “This is untrue. Whenever and wherever allegations of misconduct are made, immediate action is taken, and bad actors are held accountable.”

But attorneys for the inmates question officials’ commitment to dealing with employees accused of sexual assault and the willingness to hear complaints of improper behavior, noting the allegations indicate a troubling pattern.

“There is a general culture that is really permissive of abuse at the prison,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lalita Moskowitz said recently. “They arise from a culture where sexual assault allegations aren’t taken seriously.”

In a recent interview, Tafoya Lucero declined to say whether she thought the number of sexual assault complaints signaled a problem at the facility.

“Every case is its own individual case,” she said. “Sometimes, when you see an increase [in rape reports], it might just simply indicate that the population feels like there is something they can do, that they feel they are safe to make complaints and no harm would come to a person who makes a complaint.”

“I don’t think the state realizes the extent of this problem or is taking it seriously at all,” countered Justine Fox-Young who, along with co-counsel Erlinda Johnson, represents seven women who have pending lawsuits against current and former Corrections Department employees.

To look at each complaint as an isolated incident, Fox-Young said, is to miss the bigger picture.

“You have to look at them all together to see how gross it is,” she said.

Lack of prosecution

Prison Rape Elimination Act reports at Springer rose from one in 2016 — the last year the facility held male prisoners — to 38 in 2017, the first full year the facility held women.

The purpose of the act, passed in 2003, is to gather and provide information about the prevalence and effects of institutional rape in hopes of informing policy decisions and funding allocations to protect inmates.

Tafoya Lucero said prison officials are quick to hold employees accountable and push for criminal prosecution when warranted, and they would never allow inmates to suffer retaliation for reporting abuse. But public records show most investigations were conducted in-house, and the few that were referred to police rarely resulted in prosecution.

There were 90 Prison Rape Elimination Act reports filed at Springer between 2017 and 2019, according to Corrections Department records, but state police have investigated only eight sexual misconduct complaints at the prison since 2016, according to the agency’s own records.

Martinez, who did not return calls seeking comment, is the only prison employee who has been criminally charged in connection with those complaints.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Marcus J. Montoya likened inmate abuse cases to domestic violence allegations, noting it’s difficult to convince victims who can’t easily leave their abusers to testify against alleged perpetrators.

“The complications are compounded when you’re an inmate,” he said.

Several state police reports included notes that indicated the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the charges.

But Montoya, who has been the district attorney for over a year, said he couldn’t find any record of those decisions or open cases involving the prison.

Every one of the inmate’s lawsuits said they were scared to report abuse because they’d seen the backlash against others who did.

“Numerous female inmates … who made PREA complaints that were deemed unsubstantiated were later charged with misconduct by NMCD [the Corrections Department] and lost good-time credits and other privileges as a result,” according to one woman’s lawsuit.

Sometimes, the lawsuits say, the retaliation came from other inmates who were receiving special benefits in exchange for sexual favors.

Former corrections officer Christopher Padilla was accused of harassing at least seven women, according to court records and police reports. But he continued working at Springer for three years after the first complaint in 2017. Though he eventually was fired after failing a polygraph test, he was never criminally charged.

According to a 2017 state police report, the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue a case against Padilla “due to lack of cooperation from named victims.”

Former inmate Rebecca Martinez said that when Padilla trapped her in a walk-in cooler and threatened to write her up if she didn’t show him her breasts, she tried to make a report via a Prison Rape Elimination Act hotline.

“I felt it might be a little easier to tell someone over the phone that I wasn’t seeing face to face,” she said in a recent interview.

But the number posted in the facility didn’t work, she said.

“I don’t know how many times I called,” Martinez said. “Nobody ever answered.”

Martinez said she finally reported Padilla on March 29, 2017. By the next morning, she said, inmates threatened her with physical violence, adding guards were aware of what had happened.

Padilla could not be reached for comment, and a lawyer paid by the state to defend him against two lawsuits did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Several of the lawsuits say inmates were warned not to talk to Prison Rape Elimination Act auditors who came to the facility to ensure the prison’s compliance in 2019.

The lawsuits claim staffing shortages made it easier for guards to get inmates alone and out of view of cameras. The current vacancy rate at Springer is 28 percent, according to the Corrections Department, but the prison has had a vacancy rate as high as 61 percent at times.

Tafoya Lucero declined to comment on Padilla’s case but repeatedly said the department doesn’t tolerate sexual abuse and always takes action to protect inmates from guards accused of wrongdoing.

Delayed reaction

Attorney Matt Garcia, now Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff, filed the first civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a Springer inmate in August 2018 — nearly two years after the facility became a women’s prison.

In that complaint, the inmate alleged she’d been assaulted by corrections officer Jose Sena.

“Defendant Sena told [the inmate] if she did not give in to his advances he would take it out on her and other inmates,” Garcia wrote in the lawsuit. Frustrated by her lack of compliance, the complaint says Sena sexually assaulted the woman and threatened her with retaliation.

The lawsuit says state police began investigating Sena after the inmate reported him, but the state Department of Public Safety did not produce any records of the investigation in response to a public records request for all sexual assault reports originating from the prison since 2016.

Sena died by suicide about two weeks after being named a defendant in the complaint, according to the state Office of the Medical Investigator. The case was dismissed as a result.

Kate Loewe, an Albuquerque civil rights attorney who regularly communicates with inmates as one of the prisoner representatives on the Duran consent decree — an agreement that settled a decades-old civil suit and forced some of the most significant penal reforms in New Mexico history — said Garcia’s lawsuit on behalf of the inmate shows state officials long have been aware of the problems at the Springer prison.

“The governor has known that Springer was a dangerous place probably since before she took office,” Loewe said. “Her chief of staff filed one of the first sexual lawsuits out of Springer, and there have been so many that followed.”

Lujan Grisham declined to be interviewed for this story, but spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a recent email that “the governor is of course aware of and deeply concerned by the history of this facility.”

“It’s an unacceptable pattern,” Sackett wrote. “This administration has an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. … Unfortunately this is not the only area where the state inherited a situation where there was seemingly zero accountability and a significant rebuilding or change of direction was necessary.”

The buck stops …

The state has hired contract attorneys from nine law firms to defend itself against the cases, according to records provided by the state General Services Department, and it has already spent about $155,000.

Springer Warden Marianna Vigil and Chief of Security Robert Gonzales are named as defendants in five lawsuits that accuse them of failing to properly supervise corrections employees in a way that kept inmates from harm.

The attorneys representing them didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Gonzales’ role, the inmates’ lawyers contend, is particularly important. He’s in charge of making sure Prison Rape Elimination Act complaints are investigated and abusers are fired, Fox-Young said.

“He claims he reported every one,” she said. “But we know that’s not true.”

Attorney Ryan Villa said the state’s legal strategy — to claim governmental immunity at the outset of every case — is an extension of the lack of accountability displayed by Corrections Department officials.

Thom Cole, a spokesman for the state Risk Management Division, which hires the attorneys who defend prison officials, wrote the agency “has a legal duty to defend the State of New Mexico and use every available defense, including immunity.”

But Villa — whose client settled her lawsuit against the state for $75,000 earlier this year — argued that path is counterproductive.

“By taking that approach … they send a message to the staff and supervisors that they don’t care what they do in terms of addressing the problem,” he wrote in an email.

A federal judge recently rejected an immunity defense in at least one case, ruling inmates could bring a negligence claim against Corrections Department supervisors who “reasonably should have known about rampant sexual abuse against female inmates at Springer Correctional, and their inaction created a dangerous condition.”

But Villa wrote the issue also is about accountability — and a willingness to address the issue head-on.

“If they took the approach that they are responsible, then maybe they could be proactive and address the staff and their supervisors,” he wrote. “I think there is a culture from the higher-ups of trying to cover these claims up … and discredit the accusers, rather than do a full investigation and find ways to change the culture.”