Two New Mexico correctional facility officers are still working in state prisons after being accused multiple times of sexually abusing and harassing incarcerated people.
This past year, the prison guards Lt. Christian Trujillo and Sgt. Danny Pelayo were both named three times in civil complaints and civil rights lawsuits.
Trujillo and Pelayo work at the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton.
This investigation is a collaboration between Source NM and reporters from the Daily Lobo at the University of New Mexico.
A review of court and internal employment records by The Daily Lobo and Source NM shows the guards have been involved in a lengthy pattern of abuse against incarcerated people. Their files show that the incidents did not prevent them from moving up the ranks and that settlement negotiations with victims haven’t gone anywhere.
Prisons in both New Mexico and across the country have a long and ongoing history of abusing incarcerated people, especially people of color.
Reached for comment on the civil and criminal cases against Trujillo and Pelayo, New Mexico Corrections Department Public Information Officer Brittany Roembach did not condemn their actions arguing that “as with the justice system in our country, accusations are not findings of guilt.”
Steven Allen is one of the attorneys with the New Mexico Prison and Jail Project that is representing the incarcerated people who were allegedly abused. Allen said the pattern of abuses shows there is no internal accountability within the New Mexico prison system.
“Some of these Corrections Department staff members are able to engage in what seems to be criminal behavior, and they’re able to get away with it, because very bad behavior is consistently covered up in these systems,” Allen said.
Carl Berry, a Black man who was incarcerated in Clayton, accused both guards of beating, sexually assaulting and taunting him with racial slurs in reference to the murder of George Floyd on Feb. 15, 2021.
When Berry filed an informal complaint about the abuse on April 19, 2021, he was told it had already been referred to the Office of Professional Standards.
This office handles internal complaints and investigations against New Mexico Corrections Department employees.
Allen said their investigations bring some information to light, but are not often vigorous and are “often part of a cover up.”
“These systems are so hard to expose, they’re almost almost designed to hide information,” Allen said. “It’s like any other institution — police departments are like this — where there’s always an institutional penchant for covering up any misconduct.”
When Berry said he was assaulted in February, he was called a “PREA pussy” by one of the guards. PREA refers to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the federal law that prohibits prison guards from sexually assaulting people who are incarcerated.
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The New Mexico Corrections Department formally received his grievance on May 3. Training records and another incident shows that Pelayo knew that he was not supposed to sexually harass incarcerated people.
On June 4, 2020, Pelayo indicated there had been a substantiated allegation of sexual harassment against him, but he had never engaged in sexual abuse or had any criminal conviction or civil adjudication against him.
On Jan. 27, 2022 he filled out a self-declaration form and left blank the section asking about whether a past claim of sexual harassment had been made against him.
On Feb. 15, 2022, he was promoted to be a sergeant.
On Sept. 13, 2022, Pelayo was allegedly involved with the harassment of Jonathan Silva, also at the prison in Clayton, according to court records.
This was the first form in his personnel file to indicate a prior claim of harassment. Shortly thereafter, he joined the emergency response team, a group that responds to violent disturbances from incarcerated people.
Trujillo knew too
In 2019, Trujillo signed paperwork acknowledging that he understands PREA, knows what sexual harassment is, and that he knows it is illegal.
He also swore an oath to the mission: “We commit to the safety and well-being of the people of New Mexico by doing the right thing always.”
Jonathan Silva, another person incarcerated at the same prison in Clayton, accused Trujillo of beating him on Sept. 13, 2022 while Pelayo and other guards held him down.
Video shows Trujillo strike Silva in the head multiple times while he was held down on the floor by other guards, with his hands behind his back.
There are pictures of Silva’s injury and temporary disfigurement, something that was not documented for Berry. Pictures of Silva provided proof of injury and temporary disfigurement, according to the criminal complaint.
Berry was not afforded the same proof.
New Mexico State Police Officer Edward Quintana investigated the incident six hours after it happened. He found that Trujillo was the primary aggressor, and charged him with aggravated battery three months later.
On Jan. 3, 2023, Quintana arrested Trujillo for what he did to Silva.
There wasn’t enough evidence to charge the other guards involved, Quintana wrote in a criminal complaint filed in Clayton Magistrate Court.
Berry also accused Officer Ashley Lawrence of harassing him in 2021. She was suspended for five days in March 2022.
Wardens and other prison and jail administrators often cite understaffing as the cause of problems in their facilities. Allen disagrees and says prisons do not have a problem with staffing.
“The problem is we have too many people in prison and jail,” Allen said. “A lot of prisons, a lot of jails, should be shut down.”
Allen said mass incarceration in the United States has been a “complete failure.”
“We’ve been doing this experiment for decades now in the United States, with incarcerating people to try and increase public safety, and it’s just clearly and obviously not working,” Allen said.
Lack of discipline
A review of Trujillo and Pelayo’s personnel files obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Request shows the two have not been fired from the New Mexico Corrections Department.
The agency would not directly respond to questions about whether they are still employed.
Roembach responded with general comments to questions about the allegations, but did not answer several questions specific to Pelayo and Trujillo.
Security camera footage shows the cell block at Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility where Carl Berry was held on April 15, 2021. (Screenshot courtesy of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project)
Not reporting an instance of harassment is against state corrections department policy, Roembach said.
Corrections officials will only take disciplinary action against guards if internal investigators determine the force they used was excessive, Roembach wrote.
Any reports by incarcerated people of abuse are investigated internally.
“While an investigation is active, the accused staff member may be placed on administrative leave or required to work in a different area, if the circumstances of the incident deem it necessary,” Roembach wrote in statement.
Trujillo’s arrest warrant was filed after the Berry incident.
Months after Pelayo was present during Silva’s harassment, the incident that led to Trujillo’s arrest by state police, he left blank a self-declaration form asking if he had any past claims of harassment.
In February 2022, more than 200 days after the assault he witnessed, Pelayo was promoted to sergeant.
Trujillo has held at least six jobs at the prison since 2013, according to his personnel file. He was first promoted in 2017, and has been promoted five times since. He has been promoted frequently, at times waiting only one month between promotions.
“You do often see the OPS investigator coming from that same facility, or asking leading questions to get to the result they want,” Allen said. “The result they want is almost always a lack of accountability for Corrections Department staff.”
There was no public accountability for the abuse until Berry filed a civil rights lawsuit with the New Mexico Prison and Jail project in April 2023.
Berry and his attorneys on Sept. 14 offered a settlement to the New Mexico Corrections Department. It was not accepted.
As of October, both Berry and the guards were handing over evidence and witness testimony about the incident to a judge.
Steve Watkins was sexually assaulted during the same incident on the same day as Berry. The Prison and Jail Project is also representing him in a separate civil rights suit filed in federal court.
In Watkins’ civil rights case, the incarcerated people and the prison guards are gathering evidence, documents and testimony for trial. On Oct. 20, the guards’ legal team filed a demand for Berry to hand over evidence in the Watkins case.
His case is scheduled for a trial in November 2024.
Silva filed a civil rights complaint over the beating in January.
Studies show 95% of people who go into prison will eventually get out.
Allen said even if one does not care about human and civil rights, people should because how others are treated while on the inside correlates to how they will integrate back into society.
“We should be doing a lot more for these people than simply ensuring that they aren’t getting the crap beaten out of them for no reason,” Allen said.
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