A New Mexico Corrections Training Academy is at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former instructor.
A whistleblower lawsuit was recently filed by a former instructor at the state Corrections Training Academy over claims that he was “forced out for refusing a directive to pass all prison guard cadets regardless of their performance on physical and written tests.”
The academy offers an eight-week basic training program for correctional and probation officers and cadets and opened soon after the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
The suit was filed in state District Court on August 13 by Aaron Bell, a former advanced instructor at the academy. He said, “because of the dangerous nature of the work, successfully completing the training and related exams is crucial to the health and safety of inmates.” On average, about 15-23% of new recruits fail to complete the program with a passing score. However, the suit claims “training academy director George Stephenson instructed him not to fail any of the cadets unless told to do so.”
The suit also notes that the state Department of Corrections regularly has high vacancy rates of around “25% system-wide, with periodic spikes to 50 percent at some facilities — among correctional officers.” The suit states:
“Director Stephenson told him that they needed to establish their ‘Return on Investment’ in the Academy by bringing up their recruitment numbers and that [Bell] should pass all of the cadets — regardless of their physical ability or test scores — and let the facilities weed them out after graduation.”
On top of that, Stephenson allegedly “removed screening tools — such as lie detector and physical ability tests — historically used to determine if a potential cadet should even be admitted to the academy.”
Bell took issue with all of that and refused to follow the directive. He said, “it would lead to a specific danger to the public and his fellow correctional officers.” He also told his director “that passing everyone was improper, unsafe and violated the written policies of the Corrections Department.”
In response, Bell was called into Stephenson’s office, where he was yelled at for “not passing everyone.” Stephenson also “refused to process paperwork for a pay increase Bell was supposed to receive for a recent promotion.” Rather, Bell was demoted instead and “given retaliatory write-ups on false and pretextual grounds.”
When commenting on the suit, Eric Harrison, a Corrections spokesman, wrote the “Corrections Department held four training academies in Santa Fe during the 2021 fiscal year, in which 50 of 69 individuals graduated.” Additionally, “four separate satellite academies also were held, with 41 of 52 people graduating…The overall pass rate for the eight academies was 75 percent.”
In the end, Bell resigned on August 2 after working for the department for almost 20 years. The same day he resigned, he filed his lawsuit.
Shane Youtz, Bell’s attorney, chimed in on the suit and said:
“The violation of public trust here is the most disturbing part of this…Corrections officer is the most dangerous job in New Mexico. They’ve got to be properly trained or corrections officers get injured, and so do prisoners.”