ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico officials left a 73-year-old woman in solitary confinement for nearly five weeks and deprived her of medication for thyroid cancer and serious mental health issues, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
The lawsuit says Carol Lester, who was serving a three-year sentence for embezzlement, was placed in solitary confinement at the privately-run New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants after she and her family members complained to lawmakers about her medication.
Officials at the prison argued she was placed in confinement due to a positive drug test, an allegation that her attorney, Matthew Coyte disputes.
Coyte said staff changed Lester’s medications, which caused her to get sick and to test positive for methamphetamines. He said it’s commonly known among corrections medical providers that Zantac — prescribed to treat Lester’s stomach problems — is associated with false positive results for drug tests.
Lester had also complained to prison officials that other inmates were not getting adequate medical care.
Following the complaints, the lawsuit says the prison left Lester in solitary confinement for 34 day during the fall of 2011.
New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said in a statement that his department has been working with a nonprofit organization to review prison systems and look for ways to make improvements.
“We are actively making changes to ensure that predatory inmates who posed a danger to our system, our officers and other inmates are the offenders in segregation and not those inmates who had been preyed on,” he said.
Last month, Marcantel testified before a legislative panel that the department intends to cut the number of state prisoners living in segregation by roughly half over the next year. The effort comes as state and county officials respond to a recent report that criticized New Mexico’s widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.
In Lester’s case, the former executive director of the Ruidoso Board of Real Estate pleaded guilty in 2010 to embezzling money from her employer to support a gambling addiction. She also has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims Lester’s First Amendment rights as well as her rights to due process were violated and that she was placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for her complaints.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial as well as damages and attorney’s fees.