By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Officials at a New Mexico prison reached a settlement with nearly 500 prisoners who say they were made to sit straddling each other wearing only underwear for hours at a time, a prison rights attorney said on Wednesday.
Although officials at the Los Lunas Correctional Facility denied wrongdoing, the facility agreed to pay inmates $750,000 and to promise that the practice guards allegedly called "nuts to butts" would never be repeated, said plaintiff attorney Matthew Coyte.
The guards would order inmates to straddle each other when they were unruly or in times of emergency.
"The guards yelled at them, ‘Get yourselves nuts to butts,' where the genitals would be touching the man in front of them," Coyte said, adding that during litigation, defendants called the practice "controlled seating."
"This is outrageous conduct," Coyte said.
Officials at the Los Lunas prison did not return calls for comment but according to the settlement, the state agreed to end the practice of forcing prisoners to sit with their private body parts touching.
"No inmate shall be made to sit straddling another inmate with less than approximately 1-foot gap between the inmates," the settlement said.
The lawsuit was filed by Coyte and another attorney on behalf of 472 prisoners in 2011 after being contacted by several inmates who said they were made to sit front to back on the floor on four separate occasions between 2009 and 2010.
Six initial plaintiffs will share $10,000 each of the settlement, and the remaining prisoners will receive between $500 and $2000, depending on how long they were made to sit and on how many occasions.
The settlement is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents in county jail and state prison facilities in New Mexico. Earlier this year, Dona Ana County reached a $15.5 million settlement with a man who was arrested for drunken driving and held in solitary confinement for nearly two years, a case that also was handled by Coyte.
(Reporting by Zelie Pollon; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Bill Trott)