The women say recall how rats once fell into a kitchen stew–which inmate workers were then ordered to serve to their fellow prisoners.
Two former inmates have filed a lawsuit against a New Mexico prison and its food services contractor, claiming the jail’s kitchens were plagued by infestations of bugs, rats, and mice.
ABC News reports that the lawsuit was filed by Albuquerque residents Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia. Both women served time at the Western New Mexico Corrections Facility, a 390-bed prison located outside of Grants.
The two plaintiffs are represented by the New Mexico Jail & Prison Project, a non-profit group which advocates for improved prison conditions.
In their lawsuit, Garcia and Zapata described “horrific and widespread” conditions in the prison kitchens. Rats allegedly ran wild, defecating upon food, plates, and countertops.
In one instance, the women recount how rats had plunged into batches of broiling stew and oatmeal.
“A rodent jumped into a pot of stew that was about to be served, another inmate scooped it out,” said Robert Allen, the Prison Project’s director. “They were told to serve that food anyway.”
The lawsuit names as defendants the New Mexico Department of Corrections as well as Western New Mexico’s kitchen contractor, Summit Food Service.
According to ABC, Garcia and Zapata say they personally felt the effects of the prison’s callous neglect of sanitation—they both suffered numerous bouts of severe food poisoning, the symptoms of which included vomiting and diarrhea.
Attorneys for the women say Garcia, Zapata, and other inmates were perpetually concerned they could contract a variety of the Hantavirus, a rodent-spread pathogen which can be fatal.
“The distinctive sour, putrid smell of rodent urine, rodent feces and decaying rodent bodies was a constant presence in and near the prison’s kitchen and cafeteria,” the lawsuit states.
While different inmates filed numerous complaints, neither Western New Mexico administrators nor Summit Food Service contractors took prompt, effective action to address the alleged rodent infestation.
Both the prison and its contractor were purportedly able to skirt state-mandated inspections: the lawsuit claims that the state’s Environment Department gave kitchen operators advance notice of what were supposed to be surprise sanitation inspections, letting them organize last-minute clean-ups.
Yet in spite of the state’s warning, food safety inspectors were still able to find and identify rodent feces, burrow holes, and food caches around and adjacent to the kitchen.
Allen noted that dilapidated conditions and clear-cut neglect affect prisoners’ ability to rejoin society—as well as their propensity to re-offend.
“How we treat them,” Allen said, “is going to determine how they reintegrate into our communities and whether they’re successful or not.”