Jeremy Rose never thought he would again see the world outside prison walls, let alone stand inside the New Mexico Capitol.
Rose committed a crime as a child. He was tried as an adult, and sentenced to life in prison where he spent 29 years, 10 months and 18 days. The New Mexico Parole Board approved his release, and five weeks ago, he was out of prison.
On Tuesday morning, Rose and four others who have benefited from a new state law passed in 2023, stood in the Rotunda to show what they’ve become with the support from rehabilitation and commitment to change. The group rallied in the middle of the capitol then split off to meet lawmakers and advocate for policies that support the End Mass Incarceration Day of Action.
Last year, the Second Chance Bill became law, which Rose credited to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and attorney Denali Wilson.
“It was a sense, for a lot of years, of lost hope,” Rose said. “Coming to prison when we were children, we thought we were going to die in prison. I never thought I would have an opportunity to stand here.”
Michael Brown also did 29 years in prison for a crime he committed as a child. He said the stories he and Rose share are not unique. They say they’re just two of the many New Mexicans who are returning to their home communities after serving long sentences in state prison.
“There are men and women left inside New Mexico Corrections Department facilities who deserve the same chances we got,” Brown said. “We’re not broken. We’re here to let New Mexico know that we’re still functioning people in society.”
Rose said he wants to work with reentry programs to help others return back into society. Brown said he wants to try to expand the Second Chance Bill.
Saba Ijadi, community engagement specialist with ACLU-NM, said incarceration is not the answer to the issues people face in New Mexico.
“We need to invest in families. We need to invest in communities,” Ijadi said. “Children are not problems to be locked away. The children of New Mexico are our future.”
Justin Allen, a formerly incarcerated person, is the inclusive democracy organizer with Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ).
Allen said since people on probation and parole regained their right to vote last year, OLÉ members have been engaging with families and community members impacted by state violence and incarceration.
“Now we’re able to elect officials who align with our community values rather than allowing corporate politicians to use tough-on-crime rhetoric to expand the prison industrial complex,” he said.
New Mexicans living with a felony conviction are eligible to vote for or against any candidate in any election who impacts everyone’s lives, he said.
“Our voices are critical to decision-making, because nothing about us, without us, is for us,” Allen said.
“Voting is not our path to liberation or justice, but it is a tool we can use today to elect officials who seek to end mass incarceration with preventative measures that invest in our communities, rather than systems of harm and perpetual punishment,” he said.
OLÉ members want their elected officials to propose legislation focused on healing by investing in people, not prisons, Allen said.
For example, OLÉ member Adam Griego, pointed to House Bill 192, sponsored by Rep. Tara Lujan (D-Santa Fe), which would provide an opportunity for people suspected of nonviolent crimes in Santa Fe County to work with navigators who can connect them to substance use disorder treatment, housing, food, employment and behavioral health services.
Griego said the bill is rooted in community support.
The House of Representatives deemed HB 192 germane on Jan. 22 and it is scheduled for a hearing today in the House Health & Human Services Committee.
Joe Smith and Justin Allen, two formerly incarcerated New Mexicans, lobbied lawmakers at the New Mexico State Capitol on Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
‘I was not sentenced to be abused and paralyzed’
Joe Smith, a South Valley resident, expressed a similar feeling about regaining hope after being incarcerated for more than 20 years.
On Monday, Smith was hospitalized to treat a bone infection in his lower back called Osteomyelitis. He said health care workers injected medicine into his spine. It burned so badly he screamed, and the nurse had to hold his hands.
“It was so embarrassing,” Smith said. “This is the kind of misery I have to go through now.”
He said prison guards assaulted him twice, first in 2003 and then again last year. He has permanent nerve damage, short-term memory loss, post traumatic stress disorder, and injuries to his head and back.
Smith said he would like to see people in power change the entire grievance process. He said when he filed informal complaints, the guards rejected them.
“You can’t get to the grievance procedure because they — right in front of my face, mocking me — crumble it up, throw it away,” Smith said. “They do it all the time, because they know that once we get to the grievance procedure, we could alert the authorities to a legal procedure.”
Parrish Collins, a civil rights attorney who has fought the state prison system in court for years, has said the entire grievance system “was designed to keep inmates out of court.”
Last year, Smith said, a corrections officer drove his knee into his lower back where the infection festers.
“Because of this, I can no longer walk,” said Smith, who uses a wheelchair. “That (corrections officer) caused permanent damage.”
He said Tuesday he found a lawyer to hold the guards accountable.
“It’s good to have help like that,” Smith said. “I can’t believe it — in there, I went from being helpless, to where I’m speaking with you right here.”
Smith, an OLÉ member, demanded independent prison oversight “so that abusive corrections officers are held accountable for the crimes they inflict upon us.”
Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D-Mesilla) carried a similar proposal last year but has not introduced it in this session. She said she plans to introduce it during the 60-day session next year.
“I take responsibility for my part that led to incarceration, but I was not sentenced to be abused and paralyzed,” Smith said. “I should feel safe and protected by corrections officers who are sworn and get paid to protect us, not beat us until we are unconscious and cover it up.”