Prison Rat

Scope of rodent infestation at New Mexico women’s prison, allegations of cover-up, much larger than previously known

By: and - Tuesday September 28, 2021 5:30 am

Prison Rat

Scope of rodent infestation at New Mexico women’s prison, allegations of cover-up, much larger than previously known

By: and - 5:30 am

Women prepare lunch on a recent day in the kitchen of the women’s prison in Grants as a supervisor looks on. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

Women prepare lunch on a recent day in the kitchen of the women’s prison in Grants as a supervisor looks on. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

LaDonna Evans was serving a nine-year sentence for a drug conviction at the Northwestern New Mexico Correctional Facility when moving day came.

State prison officials took the 42-year-old Tucumcari resident and a handful of others from what was the women’s prison to a new, remote location several miles north on the very eastern edge of Grants.

The women approached a housing unit across the highway from what is now called the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, where about a dozen trailers had been modified to fit two pods per trailer.

It was October 2016.

Walking toward the trailers, Evans saw a rat scurrying through the dirt and initially thought it was normal, since she was outside. In an interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, she even recalls thinking it was funny.

This article was originally featured in the Santa Fe Reporter. Republished here with permission.

Then the humor stopped when Evans and the others entered the prison itself.

“We started seeing them inside, inside the kitchen, inside the chow hall, in our food,” she says in an Aug. 16 interview. “It was like, ‘OK, this is a issue, there are rodents inside the prison.’”

The issue did not stop, SFR has found through a series of interviews and a review of government records and court filings.

Rather, a large-scale rodent infestation peaked in the prison around 2018, keeping imprisoned women fearful and potentially exposed to the sometimes-fatal respiratory illness Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome—in a county that has helped drive New Mexico’s reported cases of the disease higher than in any state in the nation.

A view of the guard tower at the women’s prison in Grants, where prisoners allege a huge rodent infestation has lingered for years. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

The state Department of Corrections is well aware of the problem and has employed some curious strategies to address it, current and former inmates say. Among them: allowing several feral cats to roam the prison and hunt the rodents and, more recently, bringing in a domestic feline that goes by various names, including Ruffles.

Prison guards also handed out click-top plastic bins—and kept them in the commissary area—encouraging women to store food and belongings in them as a defense against mice and rats.

Prisoners also took matters into their own hands, blocking the bottoms of their cell doors with tape, books and whatever else they could find to keep the rodents out, according to women currently and formerly locked up at Western.

The situation has improved, according to current and former prisoners, though the prison remains far from rodent-free. It is not clear whether the Corrections Department has undertaken a full remediation effort, though a review of records shows that Corrections required the state Environment Department to give Western a heads-up before coming out to inspect the prison for rodents and other potential health hazards.

In February 2020—three and a half years after Evans saw a rat outside Western, then many more inside—Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Corrections Department and Attorney General Hector Balderas agreed to deploy exterminators at both Western and the men’s prison in Grants at least once a month. The agreement came as part of the latest consent decree in Duran v. Grisham, the class action lawsuit first brought in 1977 to end overcrowding and other unconstitutional conditions in the state’s prisons.

Evans is one of 40 current and former prisoners and staff at Western who have signed sworn declarations describing the prison’s kitchen and cafeteria, including multiple accounts of rodents breeding in the kitchen’s ventilation and in an old food cart, and defecating on the floor, counters, food trays and other surfaces.

The New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, a nonprofit legal organization that litigates on behalf of incarcerated people in the state, collected the declarations as part of a lawsuit on behalf of two women against the state and Summit Food Service, LLC, the prison’s food service contractor.

Prisoners prepare lunch in the kitchen at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, where several women allege rodents have contaminated the food during the past several years. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 21 in U.S. District Court arguing that prison and Summit officials violated the women’s rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

On July 16, high-ranking officials from the Corrections Department and CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the men’s prison at Northwestern, traveled there to announce to facility staff and prisoners that the state will be taking over its operations.

Jessica Vigil-Richards, interim warden of Western, joined them. She declined a request for an interview about the infestation, and Eric Harrison, a department spokesman, declined to answer questions related to the lawsuit, citing the department’s policy of not speaking publicly about issues that are the subject of litigation. Harrison also declined to set up an interview about SFR’s reporting that isn’t related to the lawsuit.

Harrison did, however, send an email listing several cleaning procedures in place at Western, including twice-monthly visits from pest control specialists.

Harrison’s email did not address the cats, but said prison officials allow women to grow mint outside their housing units “to prevent mice, as it is known as a natural deterrent.” A recent visit to the prison confirms the mint: It grows in thickets in several locations on the grounds.

The Corrections Department “takes pest control and the health and wellbeing of our inmate population very seriously,” Harrison writes.

Real health risk: hantavirus

A privately run state prison teeming with rats and mice sounds terrifying, unsanitary—downright disgusting, even.

Real health risks come with the grim image.

Rodents carry hantaviruses, which in turn cause Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a severe respiratory disease that kills. The illness is transmitted by infected rodents through feces, saliva and urine. Humans contract it by breathing in the aerosolized virus.

This satellite image shows just how remote the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility is—it sits in Cibola County, one of the state’s leading spots for hantavirus during the past four-plus decades.

New Mexico leads the nation in reported cases of the disease from 1993 through 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reports that rodents in remote, rural areas are more likely to carry the viruses.

The state Department of Health would not say whether there have been confirmed cases of the disease at Western; Harrison says no cases have been reported. But dig into the data compiled by the Health Department, and it’s clear that the disease is nearby.

There have been 118 cases reported statewide since 1975, according to the Health Department, with 51 deaths. Among New Mexico counties, Cibola, where the women’s prison at Western sits, has the fourth most cases, with nine. That trails only Taos (11), San Juan (13) and McKinley (53).

McKinley is Cibola’s immediate neighbor to the north. Both counties are classified as rural, and the patch of land where Western sits is nothing if not remote-—in virtual isolation, surrounded by vast expanse and nothing else.

None of this is lost on Western inmates.

At the infestation’s height, according to two inmates, “everywhere you went, there were dead mice.” Droppings sprinkled bowls of oatmeal and cereal. Nests with baby mice packed ventilation ducts.

The women were afraid.

Rodents in the food

While imprisoned at Western, Evans became terrified of rodents and was particularly scared that she might contract hantavirus or some other dangerous disease transmitted by them. She did everything she could to avoid eating food served from the prison’s kitchen because she knew it was contaminated.

Evans frequently got sick in the prison, including severe stomach aches and diarrhea, which occurred shortly after she was forced to eat food served by the kitchen.

The chow hall at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility is among the areas of the prison where staff and incarcerated women have seen rodents for years. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

Many prisoners say they got sick from the kitchen’s food, including Susie Zapata and Monica García, the two named plaintiffs in the Prison & Jail Project’s lawsuit.

Whenever possible, Evans says she tried to rely on commissary food. But a $2.50 can of Spam and a $1.12 pack of tortillas become prohibitively expensive for a prisoner making as little as 10 cents an hour pulling weeds around the perimeter of the prison, she says. Other jobs might pay 20 cents or 50 cents an hour.

Evans worked in the kitchen from June 2018 through November 2018, at the same time as Zapata and García. She found rodents or their feces in the cookware almost daily and frequently found rodents or their feces in the food. She also saw them running around the areas where workers prepared food.

“After your hygiene, coffee, creamer and sugar, you might get a burrito that month, you might not,” she says. “If you don’t have outside help, you’re eating in the chow hall.”

In September 2019, when Evans was taken out of a 90-day stint in segregation, she was “extremely skinny because I had tried to avoid eating the contaminated food served to me from the [Western] kitchen,” according to a sworn declaration.

Another woman incarcerated at Western from 2017 to 2019 signed a sworn declaration saying that Arthur Sanchez, the prison’s fire safety sanitation officer, and Berleen Estevan, the Summit employee in charge of food service at the prison, failed to ensure that safe food practices were followed in the kitchen and “blamed each other for the…unsanitary conditions in the…kitchen and cafeteria.”

Neither of them took responsibility for addressing the danger posed by the infestation, the woman wrote in her declaration.

“It is definitely possible that I got sick at [Western] because I was forced to eat food contaminated by rodents,” the woman wrote. At times, guards would laugh when prisoners filed grievances about the infestation.

Evans says when prisoners would bring up the rodents to prison staff, they would reply: “Don’t come to prison.”

“They were like, ‘Who cares. I get to go home where it’s rat-free,’” she says. “ ‘So if you guys don’t like it, don’t come to prison.’ ”

Gangster mice

On Jan. 23, 2019, a New Mexico Environment Department Food Program inspector, Ramon Orona, found rodent droppings in the kitchen and in two dry storage rooms. He told prison staff to seal holes in the wall and ceiling of the maintenance room and provided glue traps to catch the mice.

The traps were largely ineffective, according to one prisoner, who conveyed her experience on the condition of anonymity citing fear of retaliation. But they presented a gruesome phenomenon: “gangster mice.”

The mice were so named, according to the woman, on account of their toughness. They would get stuck in the traps, then drag the death machines to a nearby door jam and pry themselves loose, skittering away and leaving nothing behind but blood, fur and a failed trap.

In any case, Sanchez signed the January 2019 inspection report, which also cited the prison for failing to prevent contamination during food preparation and storage.

It marked the only documented presence of rodents among eight inspection reports covering 2016 to June 2021 provided by the Environment Department in response to SFR’s request under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.

Monica Star García, left, and Susie Zapata worked in the kitchen at the state women’s prison in Grants, where they say they were required to clean up rodent droppings. They are suing the Corrections Department and its food service vendor for alleged constitutional violations. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

Attorneys for the prisoners and Orona allege that Corrections and Summit officials covered up evidence of the infestation. Sanchez and Estevan were allegedly always told multiple days in advance when an inspection was about to occur at Western.

The suit alleges that the kitchen “was never cleaned adequately except when an inspector was expected” and that former warden James Yates, one of his predecessors, Roberta Lucero-Ortega and Sanchez would not allow inspectors inside Western without providing advance notice.

After getting the heads-up, Estevan required Zapata, Garcia and other prisoners to scrub the entire kitchen—a two-day job.

A look down the kitchen galley at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, where prisoners allege rodents have contaminated food and more for years. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

Estevan recruited additional prisoner volunteers to help clean the kitchen before an inspection and offered them sack lunches in return, which prisoners say were mostly prepackaged and less likely to be contaminated by rodents. It was an attractive offer.

Orona works out of an office in Milan, a 15-minute drive from the prison. He has been responsible for conducting inspections at the prison since at least 2016, according to the inspection reports.

When the Food Program inspects commercial food establishments open to the public, they typically arrive unannounced, show the owner their badges and immediately start the inspection.

That’s not how it worked at Western.

Once he got there, Orona was at the mercy of Yates, Lucero-Ortega, Sanchez and others about where he could go in the prison. That made it possible for prison leadership to partially hide the scale of the infestation. Sanchez and Estevan allegedly never allowed prisoners to speak directly with inspectors about the enormity of the infestation.

“According to Mr. Orona, if the rodent infestation at [Western] occurred at a commercial food establishment serving the general public, that establishment would immediately be shut down until the infestation was eliminated,” the suit states.

Lucero-Ortega’s attorneys have denied any wrongdoing on her part. In a court filing on July 27, they argue that she is protected by qualified immunity—a judicially created legal doctrine that shields state actors from liability for violating people’s constitutional rights—and that the prisoners were never harmed as a result of her actions, among many other defenses.

Certain bags of Frito chips

Attorneys for Summit admit that Estevan saw rodents at Western, but they deny that there is an “infestation.”

They argue in an April 30 response to the lawsuit that the state and their staff regularly inspected the kitchen and cafeteria.

Summit “admits that Defendant Estevan and its other staff would require inmates to clean the kitchen on a regular basis, but states that these cleaning procedures in no way were modified or intensified in advance of an upcoming inspection,” they wrote.

A guard strolls along outside one of the housing units at New Mexico’s women’s prison, where prisoners are encouraged to grow mint (pictured in the foreground) as a deterrent against rodents. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

The attorneys concede that “certain bags of Frito chips were at times found to have been gnawed on by rodents but [deny] the characterization of these occurrences as ‘often.’”

The prisoners allege that Estevan and other Summit staff refused to eat the contaminated food and instead brought food from outside the prison for their own meals.

Sanchez’s attorneys have denied any wrongdoing on his part. In a response to the complaint filed on May 20, they argue he was not responsible for pest control and he is protected by qualified immunity.

Sanchez “admits that he was aware of rodent problems at the facility but denies that he was ‘in charge of sanitation and safety’ for the entire facility,” his lawyers wrote.

A woman incarcerated at Western from 2017 to 2019 signed a sworn declaration saying that she never saw Sanchez take any significant steps to address the infestation. She also corroborated the other prisoners’ accounts that the kitchen was only thoroughly cleaned ahead of inspections.

Because of the rodent infestation, it felt like torture to me to work in the kitchen at the women’s prison. Because of their complete indifference to the rodent infestation and their willingness to serve food contaminated by rodents, I believe that Defendants didn’t care whether inmates at the women’s prison lived or died.

– Former inmate at the Grants women's prison

Plastic containers in the commissary were, at one point, about all the staff seemed willing to provide prisoners to keep food and other essential items from becoming contaminated, according to several women.

And cats appeared to replace a broader strategy for ridding Western of rats and mice, according to one current prisoner. At first, a handful of feral cats patrolled the corridors, seemingly on the hunt. They’re gone now, according to the woman, replaced by Ruffles, or, as others call the housecat, Prison Cat.

According to the woman, prisoners are discouraged from feeding Ruffles, who has become a friend and source of comfort to some—presumably so that the feline remains willing to catch and kill rodents.

Prisoners have taken steps themselves, too.

They built barriers at the bottoms of their cell doors to prevent rodents from entering, according to two women. Whatever they could find would have to do: tape, books, other personal belongings.

Professional obligation

In December 2019, Nicole Ramirez took a job with Centurion Health and started working at Western as a clinical social worker. Prisoners started telling her that they were finding rodent feces in their food.

The following April, prisoners and other staff told Ramirez that rice with rodent feces in it had been served to prisoners. She felt a “professional obligation to file a complaint about the infestation,” according to the Prison & Jail Project lawsuit.

“Statements from staff members when inmates brought this situation up were comments like ‘sounds like extra protein’ or ‘file a grievance,’” she recounted on April 14, 2020 in a written complaint filed with the Corrections Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

I just do not see how staff members have allowed rodents to be in the kitchen where the food (is) stored and prepared for several hundreds of people.

– Nicole Ramirez, a clinical social worker at the prison

That day, former deputy warden Vincent Vigil called Ramirez into a meeting with another Centurion employee, and eventually got her supervisor, Laura Sedillo, on the phone. Sedillo wrote Ramirez up and ordered an improvement plan because she filed the complaint, according to the lawsuit.

According to the suit, it was the only discipline Ramirez ever received at Western. She started fearing for her safety after her access card allegedly stopped working.

She resigned from Centurion on May 11, 2020. Two days later, when she tried to arrange to get her belongings, Sedillo wrote to her in an email that “the Administration at [Western] has made the decision to pull your security clearance to enter the facility due to untruthful statements in an [Office of Professional Standards] investigation.”

The Prison & Jail Project sued Corrections for allegedly retaliating against Ramirez. The group alleges her bosses sought to make her job intolerable and that she was forced to resign.

Lawyers for the Corrections Department argue that Ramirez is not protected by state whistleblower law because she is an independent contractor. They deny any retaliation and argue that any action taken was “due to her misconduct, poor job performance, a reduction in workforce or other legitimate business purpose.”

That’s contradicted by one of her former colleagues at Western, Deborah Rhynes, who spoke with Ramirez many times about the infestation and consulted with her while Ramirez drafted her complaint.

An exterior view of the women’s prison, where guards have brought in cats to catch and kill rodents rather than address a long-running infestation according to current and former prisoners. (Jeff Proctor / Santa Fe Reporter)

In a sworn declaration signed March 18, Rhynes said that Ramirez “had more experience and a higher degree of professional integrity than most other staff employed by Centurion Health” at Western.

Rhynes learned that prisoners had overheard conversations between guards and she became convinced that Vigil, the former deputy warden, was trying to find an excuse to fire Ramirez because of her complaint.

“The rodent infestation at [Western] is completely unacceptable because it violates the basic human needs of inmates at the women’s prison to live, eat and sleep in humane conditions,” Rhynes said. “Defendants need to take steps to bring the rodent infestation…to an end.”

In November 2020, the Prison & Jail Project asked the Corrections Department for public records related to rodents at the prison, including any complaints filed about the infestation.

The department’s attorneys on June 10 admitted that Ramirez’s complaint was not included in its response to the request. They argued in a separate case that’s still pending that the department did not wrongfully deny the group’s records request.

Evans, the former prisoner, says she built bonds with the women still inside.

She worries about their health, and would like some reassurance that conditions in the prison are more sanitary than when she was there.

While they’re incarcerated, she says, women endure poor treatment from guards and difficult living arrangements. According to court records, one of the pods at Western contains double cells without toilets, sinks or water, and prisoners reported multiple-day lockdowns and frequent overnight lockdowns requiring them to defecate and urinate in their cells because they can’t use the restroom, creating a risk of contact with other diseases.

Another pod at the prison frequently does not have heat, sometimes overnight when the temperatures drop into the teens.

“We got sent to prison as our punishment,” she says. “We should not have to get punished on top of that.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

Jeff Proctor
Jeff Proctor

Jeff Proctor has been a journalist in New Mexico since 2002 and has been hanging around SFR in various capacities since 2013. In May 2021, he took over as full-time news editor. He still writes about criminal justice issues, transparency and even golf for the newspaper, too.