Inmates in the Tierra Amarilla Detention Center are alleging that jail guards violated their First Amendment rights and are forcing them to endure inhumane conditions.
After a group of people incarcerated in the jail wrote July 30 to the Rio Grande SUN to report unsafe COVID-19 practices, jail staff retaliated against them with verbal abuse and forced labor, according to two September letters, one signed by 13 inmates and the other signed by one.
“Admin read the article and is now trying to create a hostile environment,” one of the letters states.
The inmates had written in their July 30 letter that they were not receiving enough cleaning supplies and were expected to clean the facility themselves without any personal protective equipment.
The staff then mocked and yelled at them for writing to the newspaper, according to the September letters, and told them they had 30 minutes to clean the pods using only a mop and a bucket of water.
An administrator allegedly proceeded to spray down the jail with chemicals that were “not to have direct contact with skin” and ordered the inmates to scrub the sprayed areas without any gloves, one of the letters states.
When one inmate asked for gloves, the administrator “got really mad and got into the inmate’s face and was trying to entice inmate using verbal abuse,” it states.
The jail guards who were watching allegedly did not intervene.
And the inmates’ concerns about the COVID-19 practices in the facility are still present. At least one inmate tested positive for COVID-19, according to one of the letters, and jail staff ordered two inmates from another area in the jail to clean the cell.
The inmates ran out of cleaning supplies before they were finished wiping down the cell, the letter states.
“Inmates are not slaves and our lives matter as well,” the inmates wrote in the other letter.
Jail administrators Larry DeYapp and Jose Luis Gallegos did not return requests for comment about the allegations.
Rio Arriba County Commissioner James Martinez wrote in a Sept. 25 text message that the County Commissioners had last inspected the jail in December 2019.
He wrote that according to County administration, the jail staff “have and will continue to implement covid-19 specific safety measures. In addition, detention center staff perform their job duties in a professional manner in accordance to work policies and procedures.”
County Commissioner Danny Garcia said in a Sept. 25 phone call that DeYapp told him the inmates are upset because DeYapp is following Center for Disease Control guidelines and enforcing a quarantine period after the inmates are booked.
DeYapp told Garcia that the inmates did not want to quarantine and thus are starting “trouble within themselves,” Garcia said.
It is unclear, however, why the inmates would be upset about the quarantine period, given the fact that they expressed worry in a previous letter that quarantine regulations were not being enforced strictly enough.
Garcia also said DeYapp told him two inmates tested positive for COVID-19 but that there has not been any outbreak beyond them.
“If they weren’t testing, if they weren’t cleaning, if they were not following the guidelines, I think the (Tierra Amarilla) Detention Center would have an outbreak already,” Garcia said.
County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo did not return a request for comment about the matter.
The letters also describe numerous other instances of forced, unpaid labor.
“Slavery is not dead,” one letter states. “Here at the Rio Arriba Detention Center, inmates are used to clean halls, wash clothes, clean the grounds, pick up trash, paint, clean the pod and even jump into the sewer and change the motors inside the sewer.”
The other letter corroborated this account.
“Here you are expected to do the jobs without any compensation whatsoever,” it states.
The inmates described other inhumane conditions as well, including various lighting and plumbing issues.
A t one point, the inmates state, a group of people in the jail were living beneath floodlights that did not shut off for five months straight, while others were living in total darkness for weeks.
“Both a form of torture,” they wrote.
James Blaker, who was incarcerated in the facility for a night and part of a day in mid-May, said in a July interview that inmates are being padlocked inside of cells––which can endanger their lives in situations of fire.
And it is not clear whether the fire alarm system is functioning.
Gallegos wrote to County Manager Tomas Campos in January to inform him that the “system is down and needs to be replaced.”
Campos wrote in a Sept. 24 text message that he does not know whether the system has been replaced, and Gallegos said in a Sept. 18 phone call that the jail administrators are waiting to obtain money to purchase a new system.
He said the current system “isn’t completely down. It’s something that we need to replace.”