People in NM prisons often held at the wrong security level, report shows

Delays to fixing the prison classification system leave people wading through complex legal processes with little access to information

By: - August 25, 2022 5:00 am

People in New Mexico prisons “are frequently placed at higher security levels than the scoring tool indicates is necessary,” according to Legislative Finance Committee researchers. (Photo by Alex Potemkin / Getty Images)

There is technically a law library at the maximum security Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, but someone like Michael Armendariz can’t just walk in and pull a book off the shelf.

All New Mexico prisons “have legal library services,” said New Mexico Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart.

This is true, but someone classified as a level four prisoner, also known as someone held in “security threat unit housing,” cannot just go to a library. They also don’t have access to a computer, or the Internet, or even a copy machine.

Armendariz is a poet, rapper and artist from Los Lunas. Anything that he and the roughly 230 people in level four and held in Santa Fe seek must be requested through pencil and paper, and they rely on others to deliver those things, including library materials.

“We don’t actually go anywhere,” he said.

And when you don’t know anything about the law to begin with, you can’t possibly know how to use the law library in the first place, Armendariz said.

“The option is technically there, but it’s effectively useless,” Armendariz said.

The prison system is designed to be in opposition to an incarcerated person’s needs, said Melissa Mullinax, who has been friends with Armendariz since she met him while running education programs in New Mexico prisons from 2011 to 2013 for AmeriCorps and the Corrections Department.

“Once you’ve been convicted of a crime, the state has a vested interest in you remaining convicted and continuing to be incarcerated,” Mullinax said. “That is the premise on which everything else operates.”

Armendariz said authorities in 2005 classified him as a member of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang.

His mother Diana Crowson testified at an interim legislative committee hearing on July 27 that her son’s classification was the result of him being incorrectly identified as a gang member.

Hart, the prison spokesperson, said someone “validated as a member of a prison gang with a well-documented history of gang violence or gang activity” would be placed in level four.

She said the department has a process that allows people to be classified at a lower level “if they are willing to renounce their gang membership and disassociate themselves from the gang.”

Armendariz said he has had no discipline in the past 10 years that might affect his classification. He said prison officials have kept him in level four because he grew up with and knows a lot of people who are in some way associated with prison gangs.

According to court records, Armendariz was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting an off-duty Valencia County sheriff’s deputy and wounding his brother, an off-duty New Mexico State Police officer, on Oct. 6, 2002 during a fight at the Two-Minute Warning, a bar in Los Lunas.

Armendariz has spent the last 20 years fighting his conviction, twice in state court in 2006 and 2018. To do that, he must use the law library.

“It’s an incredibly laborious, tedious and often unreliable process because the employees in the correctional facilities, in my experience, are not motivated to help people and do the bare minimum that’s required by their jobs,” Mullinax said. “I don’t mean to say that to degrade anyone; I think it’s a systemic function of the prison itself. But it makes it incredibly challenging — impossible — to do any real legal work.”

That’s not even considering how complex the law is, Mullinax said, all of the logistics around trying to fight a case, more or less on your own, while in prison.

Armendariz’s profile on the department’s website shows him as level five, however, Hart said the level five classification refers to a program that no longer exists. Level four is the highest level in the classification system today, Hart said.

Hart said access to legal library services “is not dependent on the custody level of the facility.”

But if Armendariz was in a lower classification, he could transfer to one of those prisons where he would have better access to a law library in-person.

Incarcerated people who are classified as level four and held in Santa Fe must wait for about a week to hear back about their request for library materials, which can make it harder to understand and use prior case law to argue before the court and meet its deadlines, he said.

That’s especially hard for someone like Armendariz who has to count on prison staff to deliver library materials.

And in Mullinax’s experience, it doesn’t always happen: Staff members often bring back something else, don’t respond for weeks — or don’t respond at all.

“I can’t emphasize enough how unmotivated the staff are,” Mullinax said. They’re encouraged to do as little as possible, she said, “because if you show interest in people, then they call that ‘undue familiarity’ and you could be fired for that sort of thing.”

Armendariz is working on it doggedly despite the conditions, she said, but he can’t do it himself.

“He’s relying on this network of people who are systemically required not to care about him or his well-being,” Mullinax said. “They don’t want to help, and so he’s up against this constantly.”‘

Reforms to classification system delayed

Armendariz is not alone: People in New Mexico prisons “are frequently placed at higher security levels than the scoring tool indicates is necessary,” according to Legislative Finance Committee researchers. The classification system is not something written out in state law or regulation. It is determined by Corrections Department policy.

In a July 2020 report, LFC analysts found that between 2014 and 2016, 60% of all newly incarcerated people scored low enough to be held in minimum security, but the majority of them ended up in medium security.

Because the tool prison officials use to classify people has never been validated, it is impossible to say for sure whether the decisions based on it are appropriate or represent unnecessary overclassification, the LFC analysts wrote.

“Validation should help shed light on whether some portion of the medium-security population could be safely housed in minimum security,” the LFC wrote.

Since before her son went to prison in 2002, Crowson has been an activist on prisoners’ rights issues. She told lawmakers the informant who accused Armendariz of being in a gang did not need any proof.

If someone is ever identified as a gang member, they can never go below level four unless they snitch someone else out, Crowson said.

“But most of the inmates realize that that’s probably a death sentence to do that, number one,” Crowson said. “ And number two, they just have more integrity.”

Armendariz has not been charged with any crime since his original conviction, according to court records.

Corrections Department policy requires prison officials to figure out every incarcerated person’s programming and rehabilitation needs, but the LFC found that in 2018, they had conducted the needs assessment on only 4% of incarcerated people.

If someone shows good behavior over a long period of time, they can get moved to a lower classification. However, the LFC wrote that good behavior can be canceled out by old offenses.

“Revising this aspect of the scoring instrument may make it easier for inmates to access less restrictive custody levels without compromising safety,” the LFC wrote.

The researchers are asking the state to change the scoring so that it only considers discipline over the past year.

Incidents that result in discipline follow people for a decade, and serious misconduct within the last 10 years can raise someone’s classification, the LFC analysts found. But UNM researchers in 2017 found that only recent misconduct over the past year actually helps predict the risk for future misconduct.

The July 2020 report said the department was expected to finish validating its classification system this summer with help from the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research, which will result in new classification tools for incarcerated people.

But Paul Guerin, director of the institute’s Center for Applied Research and Analysis, said on Aug. 11 that the work is still ongoing and will not be done until June 2023.

“COVID-19 limited our ability to access prisons for some of the work and made it more challenging to get needed data,” Guerin said.

Researchers also wrote that the classification system results in increased costs of holding people at high-security levels, totaling as much as $28 million per year.

Hart said that as it stands, the classification system is effective at reducing violence, but the department does recognize that it is over 20 years old.

“The ISR study is assessing the potential benefits of revising the classification process, including not only cost but overall safety,” Hart said. “The safety of our staff, individuals in our custody, and the entire community, will always be NMCD’s top priority.”

To Mullinax, trying to fight a conviction while in prison is unimaginably frustrating, like Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades.

“So you’re doing it on top of living in this totally inhumane environment where you aren’t allowed any love, or physical contact, or intimacy, or support,” Mullinax said. Imagine trying to tackle something really difficult and important in your life, except in a cell “with this whole mountain of things against you, knowing that nobody wants you to succeed.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.