Lawsuit: Guards beat, taunt inmate with, 'You can't breathe'

FILE - Corrections Department Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero speaks after being named as Cabinet secretary to oversee New Mexico's combination public-private prison system, at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Advocates for prisoners' rights have filed a civil rights lawsuit against state corrections officers who allegedly ignored requirements that they videotape a prison-cell encounter with an inmate who says he was sexually abused, beaten without provocation and taunted with words that evoked the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of police. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File) (Morgan Lee, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SANTA FE, N.M. – Advocates for prisoners’ rights have filed a civil rights lawsuit against state corrections officers who allegedly ignored requirements that they videotape a prison-cell encounter with an inmate who says he was sexually abused, beaten without provocation and taunted with words that evoked the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of police.

The New Mexico Prison & Jail Project filed the lawsuit Tuesday seeking damages in U.S. District Court on behalf of a Black inmate against five state Corrections Department officers, in an April 2021 confrontation at the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton.

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The advocacy group reconstructed events from the testimony of the plaintiff and other inmate witnesses, along with unredacted portions of an internal investigation by the Correction Department’s Office of Professional Conduct. The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they consent to be named.

Officers told investigators that the inmate was restrained physically and with pepper spray after swinging an elbow at an officer. They denied the inmate's account of abuses.

The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff was face-down on the ground, when a corrections officer placed a foot on his back and said, “Let me guess, you can’t breathe.”

Attorneys for the Prison & Jail Project say the date of the encounter on April 15, 2021, corresponded with the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of Floyd. Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee for 9 1/2 minutes. The case centered around excruciating bystander video of Floyd gasping repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” The case triggered worldwide protests and a reexamination of racism and policing in the U.S.

Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter on April 20, 2021.

Several officers involved in the New Mexico altercation acknowledged to Corrections Department investigators that a video camera should have been used inside the cell.

“Its use could have prevented questions, provided answers and the truth would have come out,” one officer told investigators.

Prison & Jail Project Director Steven Robert Allen said video recordings were required because the use of force by corrections officers was planned and not reactive. The Corrections Department declined to release a copy of its policy to the AP.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. She said four corrections officers out of five in the complaint still work at the agency.

The lawsuit alleges that corrections officers retaliated against the plaintiff after he spoke out earlier in support of another inmate who was surrounded by officers. Those events also are chronicled in a separate 2022 lawsuit alleging battery and sexual abuse by corrections officers against another inmate.

The new lawsuit says at least five corrections officers and a manager later entered the plaintiff’s cell and ordered a cellmate to leave.

The lawsuit alleges that one officer pushed his crotch up against the plaintiff’s backside. It says the plaintiff objected and wasn't provoked into retaliating, but he was thrown to the ground, beaten and taunted further.

The inmate in New Mexico “thought he was going to die, and why wouldn’t he?” Allen said. “That kind of terrorizing of a Black prisoner in a prison here in New Mexico is completely unacceptable.”

The lawsuit alleges battery, cruel and unusual punishment and violations of free speech rights, seeking unspecified compensation.

The inmate initially filed an administrative complaint under provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It is unclear whether officers were disciplined. No criminal charges have been filed. The inmate is serving a sentence after pleading guilty to armed robbery in 2016.