Ex-inmate left in hot New Mexico prison van wins $2m lawsuit

A former New Mexico inmate has won a $2 million verdict in a lawsuit accusing corrections officers of leaving him and other prisoners in a van on a summer day as some passed out and others screamed and rocked the vehicle in hopes of rescue.

The Roswell jury returned the award late Thursday, more than three years after Isaha Casias sued the New Mexico Department of Corrections and two prisoner transport officers. He accused the officers of leaving him and 10 other shackled prisoners in the back of the vehicle parked outside the state penitentiary in Santa Fe in 2013.

The officers didn’t come back for an hour, and Casias said he passed out in that time.

When they opened the back doors, Casias said he fell and hit the vehicle’s bumper while unconscious. He suffered wrist and back pain that went untreated for weeks as he served his prison sentence, the lawsuit said.

“I would like for a human being to be treated like a human being,” Casias said in a phone interview Friday. “No matter what the situation, we are still human beings. We still have rights.”

Casias was convicted in 2013 of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm or destructive device by a felon, according to court records. He was released from prison in August 2014.

He said he was satisfied with the verdict. His attorney, Matthew Coyte, said he was glad the judgment came after a jury trial because he believes it can improve the chance of the case leading to reforms.

Coyte said he was not aware of the Corrections Department enacting any policy changes in recent years for improving protocols during prisoner transports.

An attorney for the Corrections Department and the two officers named in the lawsuit — Taracina Morgan and Herman Gonzales — did not respond to phone messages requesting comment.

The two officers were cleared in an internal investigation, a former corrections spokeswoman said after the lawsuit was filed.

Coyte said other inmates who had been in the van served as witnesses. But the depositions of those still in custody had to be taken behind bars instead of in a courtroom because they refused to get into a prisoner transport van again.

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