ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico corrections guard under investigation after two violent inmates escaped from a prison transport van also has been accused of leaving shackled inmates unattended in a hot vehicle, raising questions about oversight of prisoner transports in the state.
Officials disclosed in documents obtained by The Associated Press on Monday that Taracina Morgan, 38, and another guard were in charge of transporting two violent felons from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe to a correctional facility in Las Cruces.
Lionel Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery and shooting at an officer, and convicted murderer Joseph Cruz escaped the van during a fuel stop March 9 along a remote New Mexico highway.
They were apprehended days later, but state police have declined to say how the inmates were able to slip past Morgan and fellow guard Michael Ortega. The escape has placed prison officials under scrutiny as they face questions over whether any possible missteps led to the escape and how the inmates' getaway went unnoticed for roughly four hours.
Morgan and Ortega have been with the Corrections Department for more than a decade and have been placed on administrative leave as authorities investigate any possible misconduct linked to the escape, according to letters to the guards dated March 11.
Policies require transport officers to guard prison vans at all times, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza.
Morgan also was named in a lawsuit filed last year against the Corrections Department that says she and another guard left inmates unattended for up to an hour in a hot van with inadequate ventilation in July 2013.
The department investigated and did not find Morgan guilty of the allegations, so she was not disciplined, corrections spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza said.
In the lawsuit, former inmate Isaha Casias, of Hesperus, Colorado, said Morgan left him and 10 other inmates inside the vehicle during a stop at the state penitentiary.
The lawsuit described a scene of panic, with some prisoners passing out, including Casias, and others yelling and rocking the van in an effort to seek help, according to the lawsuit.
A phone call seeking comment from Morgan's attorney was not immediately returned Monday.
Casias, who says he was denied treatment for days, is seeking compensation for emotional distress and physical injuries, including a seizure that the lawsuit suggests was caused by conditions inside the van. He says he also suffered wrist and back pain when he fell out of the vehicle while unconscious from the heat.
Several people have been arrested in aiding the escape by Cruz and Clah, including a man who spotted the men along the road, took them to his home where he cut off their shackles, then helped them flee more than 200 miles north to Albuquerque, authorities say.