Whistleblower files lawsuit against New Mexico Corrections Training Academy

Aug. 18—A former instructor at the state Corrections Training Academy has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, contending he was forced out for refusing a directive to pass all prison guard cadets regardless of their performance on physical and written tests.

The eight-week academy — opened in the wake of a bloody 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico — provides basic training for correctional officers and probation and parole officer cadets.

Because of the dangerous nature of the work, successfully completing the training and related exams is crucial to health and safety of inmates, former advanced instructor Aaron Bell says in his lawsuit, filed Aug. 13 in state District Court.

Between 15 percent and 23 percent of new recruits typically don't satisfactorily complete the program, but Bell's lawsuit alleges training academy director George Stephenson instructed him to not to fail any of the cadets unless told to do so.

The state Department of Corrections has a chronically high vacancy rate — hovering around 25 percent system-wide, with periodic spikes to 50 percent at some facilities — among correctional officers.

"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," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Stephenson also 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 refused to follow the directive "because it would lead to a specific danger to the public and his fellow correctional officers," according to his lawsuit, and informed his director that passing everyone was improper, unsafe and violated the written polices of the Corrections Department.

According to the lawsuit, which seeks reinstatement, damages and legal fees, Bell faced retaliation for his refusal to follow the directive.

According to the lawsuit, Stephenson called Bell into his office and yelled at him for not passing everyone and refused to process paperwork for a pay increase Bell was supposed to receive for a recent promotion.

Instead, the lawsuit says Bell was demoted and given "retaliatory write ups on false and pretextual grounds."

Stephenson did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Corrections spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email Tuesday the department had not yet been served with Bell's lawsuit.

Harrison wrote the Corrections Department held four training academies in Santa Fe during the 2021 fiscal year, in which 50 of 69 individuals graduated. Four separate satellite academies also were held, with 41 of 52 people graduating. The overall pass rate for the eight academies was 75 percent.

Bell, who had worked for the department for nearly 20 years, seven at the academy, resigned Aug. 2 according to the department. He filed his complaint on his last day on the job.

"The violation of public trust here is the most disturbing part of this," Bell's attorney Shane Youtz said Tuesday. "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."