SANTA FE – A mental-health worker at a state prison in western New Mexico says she was harassed and threatened by superiors after reporting details of an apparent rodent infestation, under a lawsuit filed Tuesday in state district court.
The lawsuit under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act was filed on behalf of Nicole Ramirez, a licensed social worker and mental health clinician at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. The Corrections Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment by phone and email.
Advocates for improved prison conditions say supervisors of the 390-bed facility have failed for years to resolve a rat and mouse infestation at the kitchen in the women’s lockup in the town of Grants. A separate federal lawsuit filed in February on behalf of two former inmates alleges cruelty and negligence in connection with the infestation that allegedly resulted in contact between prison food and rodent feces, urine and even rodents that plunged into vats of stew and oatmeal.
The new lawsuit says that Ramirez started work at the prison in December 2019 and immediately heard complaints from inmates about rodents and contact with food.
When Ramirez filed a complaint with the office of professional standards at the Corrections Department, she was confronted by a deputy warden and told that she would need to be disciplined, according to the lawsuit. Ramirez says she resigned amid concerns about a disciplinary writeup and her personal safety after a security access card stopped functioning.
“Nicole believed she had a professional responsibility to report the infestation because of the ongoing threat it posed to the physical and mental health of the women incarcerated at the prison,” said Matthew Coyte, a member of the steering committee for the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project that represents Ramirez.
In a companion lawsuit this week, an advocacy group accused the Corrections Department of refusing to release Ramirez’s internal complaint about the rodent infestation under state open records laws.
The Corrections Department and its food service contractor at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility have not yet responded in court to allegations of an infestation.
Attorneys say inmates at the prison have been tormented by the risk of potentially fatal hantavirus infection from contact with mouse droppings, though no hantavirus infections were reported. A local wild mouse species is a known carrier.