Allegations of sexual humiliation at Los Lunas Prison echoes 2011 case

Two guards who abused prisoners more than a decade ago named in new case

By: - April 8, 2022 8:00 am

An entrance to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Guards accused of taking part in beating, terrorizing and sexually humiliating incarcerated people two years ago at the New Mexico state prison in Los Lunas were found to have committed similar abuses before, but have only risen in the ranks since.

A new federal lawsuit alleges that New Mexico Corrections Department Assistant Warden Joe Lytle and Capt. Emmitt Bland are two of at least 12 guards who took part in an abusive “welcome committee” in March 2020 at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, about a half-hour’s drive south of Albuquerque.

On two separate occasions, March 20 and April 8, 2020, prison officials transferred people held at the men’s prison in Grants to the one in Los Lunas.

When they arrived guards tried to provoke them to fight them, told them to bend over and “spread their butt cheeks,” strip-searched them, sexually taunted them, and then chose some of them “to have their heads forcibly and violently shaved,” the lawsuit states.

Every corrections officer who was present, including all Defendants, watched and failed
to intervene in the physical abuse, sexual humiliation and terrorizing of Plaintiffs.

– Coyte Law P.C. and the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project

Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte and Steven Robert Allen, an attorney with the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, pieced together what happened by collecting the accounts of 14 current and formerly incarcerated people.

“The threats of physical violence combined with sexualized bullying and intimidation were premeditated and occurred regardless of whether the Plaintiffs were complying with orders or objecting to their treatment,” the lawsuit states. “The decision to forcibly shave certain prisoners was premeditated and taken by high- ranking NMCD staff members, including Defendants Lytle and Bland.”

Lytle and Bland were both involved in the 2011 incident and the one in March 2020, Coyte said.

The “nuts to butts” lawsuit Coyte filed in 2011 is similar to this one, he said, in that guards used violence, intimidation, sexual harassment and inappropriate mass strip searches.

In the 2011 case, guards lined people up naked, with the exception of their underwear, in rows on the gymnasium floor and made them scooch up so close to each other that their genitals touched the back of the guy in front of them, Coyte said.

“Depositional testimony in that case revealed that they forced them to put their foreheads onto the naked back of the man in front of them,” he said.

Coyte and another attorney sued on behalf of 472 people incarcerated at the same prison. New Mexico settled the case for $750,000 and promised to never engage in the practice again, Reuters reported.

Lytle was the head of the team who did that at that time.

“He got promoted, as did many other who were involved,” Coyte said.

The new lawsuit alleges that as Lytle watched his subordinates abuse the incarcerated people, he recorded it on a cell phone. Allen said he does not know whether that was Lytle’s personal or Department-issued phone.

Defendants Lytle and Bland oversaw and approved of these strip searches ... of the excessive use of force ... of the sexually abusive, threatening, degrading language ... of the violent threats ... of the racist language ...

– Coyte Law P.C. and the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project

Eric Harrison, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Corrections Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said “NMCD is committed to the safety of all inmates within our care, and we maintain a zero tolerance policy regarding any and all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

“Please let me be clear — we absolutely will be investigating these allegations thoroughly and will take action to make certain that any staff involved in any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior are held accountable to the highest level,” Harrison said.

No known investigation of battery

It is not clear if the Department’s investigation will determine the identity of an unnamed prison guard who is alleged to have forcibly shaved the head of one of the men incarcerated in Los Lunas.

The lawsuit states that the guard forced the man’s neck onto the rim of a trash can to violently shave his head, pushing down on his neck hard enough to choke him.

When the incarcerated person tried to lift his head to breathe, the officer “yelled sexually degrading names at him calling him a ‘faggot’ and a ‘gay bitch,’” the lawsuit states.

Afterwards, guards told him, “You better not say anything to the nurse.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that “the forcible shaving of a person’s head while pushed into a trash can amounts to a battery,” a violation of New Mexico criminal statute.

As far as attorneys know, no police agency has investigated the alleged battery.

Jessica Martinez, chief deputy of 13th Judicial District Attorney Barbara Romo, said the district attorney’s office “will review the investigating agency’s case and determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with criminal charges.”

“However, I cannot give you an answer at this point as to whether we have received this case for review without an offender’s name,” Martinez said.

Racist taunts

Part of the degradation described in the suit includes homophobic, misogynistic and racist taunts by the guards, Allen said.

The lawsuit states that an unnamed guard referred to a Black incarcerated person as “boy” in “a deliberately degrading act of racism.” He objected to having his head shaved because he is Muslim, but the more he spoke up, the worse it became, the suit states.

Another incarcerated person, as part of his Native American tradition and religion, had cut his hair more than a year before to mourn the death of his brother. To pay his respects as he approached his release date, the incarcerated person started to grow his hair back and did not get a haircut for 14 months.

The lawsuit states that he told the guards that he was Native American and had the right to grow out his hair. An unnamed guard told him, “This is our version of scalping you.”

It was difficult to identify all of the guards involved, Allen said, in part because “our clients were instructed, over and over again, to keep their eyes on the ground, to not look up, and if they did, and when they did, they were severely beaten for doing that.”

“That was an attempt to ensure that they couldn’t document what was happening to them, and that’s also a disturbing aspect of all this,” Allen said.

He anticipates learning more through the discovery process about exactly how many guards took part in the abuse, the actual reasons why they violently shaved the incarcerated people’s heads, and whether the racist and sexist comments by the guards may point to broader problems with the power dynamics between the guards at the prison and the people in their charge.

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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.