Lawsuit alleges 'unsanitary' conditions at jail


June 15, 2022

An Arizona man suing American Airlines for being jailed for a crime he didn’t commit gave descriptions about his 17-day incarceration at the Quay County Detention Center that alleges “grossly unsanitary conditions” and lack of precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Lowe, 46, of Flagstaff, Arizona, filed the lawsuit last week in Tarrant County, Texas, through his Dallas-area lawyer, Scott Palmer.

The suit initially was reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the story was picked up major news outlets across the country, including CBS, NBC, NPR, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

According to a copy of the lawsuit provided by Palmer, Lowe was flying on American Airlines on May 12, 2020, from Flagstaff to Reno, Nevada, with a stop in Dallas. During the layover, a burglary was reported in the airport, and surveillance footage showed the suspect boarding Lowe’s plane.

Airport police later obtained a search warrant that ordered the airline to produce data about the passengers on that flight. According to the lawsuit, American Airlines provided information on only one passenger — Lowe. Tarrant County issued felony and misdemeanor warrants for his arrest.

While vacationing in Tucumcari on July 4, 2021, Lowe was arrested on the warrant while city police were investigating another person during a disturbance. Lowe insisted they had arrested the wrong person and was confident the mistake would be rectified quickly.

Booked at the Quay County Detention Center, Lowe stated in his lawsuit he was ordered to strip naked and his body inspected for contraband.

“Placed in a quarantine pod, the facilities (sic) contempt for the health, safety and well-being of its inmates was immediately obvious, as not a single staff member nor inmate wore a face covering,” the lawsuit stated, noting Quay County had the fourth-highest death rate from COVID-19 in New Mexico at the time.

The suit stated every adult jail in New Mexico except Quay County’s had cut its inmate population numbers in response to the pandemic. It stated the jail was one of only three in the state where corrections officers and jail contractors had refused to be tested for the virus.

Lowe stated he was housed with gang members, habitual offenders and violent inmates with “a palpable sense of menace.”

“For 17 days and nights, Mr. Lowe lived in a constant state of fear of confrontation or abuse,” the lawsuit stated. “Violent outbursts arose over any trivial act — the use of the shared television, access to the phones in the pod. Mr. Lowe was forced to watch when a young inmate was punched in the face three times in rapid succession by an older inmate for no apparent reason. A week later, a wall remained stained with the young inmate’s blood.”

The lawsuit states Lowe suffered from a lack of sleep during his incarceration. He was forced to sleep on a concrete floor or a metal bunk, resulting in his hips being bruised well after his eventual release.

“The constant noise created by the other inmates also prevented Mr. Lowe from sleeping. Some inmates would bang on the walls and yell for hours on end. Another inmate, who was denied the medication needed to manage his psychiatric conditions, would scream random and incoherent church hymns throughout the night.”

Another inmate became sick, and Lowe and other inmates begged guards to take him to a doctor or nurse, “but their request was ignored.”

“The overcrowding also resulted in grossly unsanitary conditions; the smell of urine and feces kept the air so pungent that Mr. Lowe was often forced to breathe through his mouth and use is jail clothing to cover his nose,” the lawsuit stated. “When Mr. Lowe could no longer stand the stench, he requested cleaning supplies, but was merely given a spray bottle with water and just a hint of disinfectant and a filthy mop with no bucket.”

Lowe did not appear before a judge until his eighth day in jail. Without a lawyer to represent him, Lowe mistakenly waived extradition. Palmer in an email stated it never was clear why Lowe wasn’t assigned a lawyer.

Lowe was released after 17 days. He took a Greyhound bus from Tucumcari back to Flagstaff. A detective eventually obtained Lowe’s mugshot from the Tucumcari jail and compared it to the photos of the burglar. Tarrant County eventually dropped the charges.

The suit stated that since Lowe’s incarceration, he’s been wracked by anxiety, nightmares, trauma and hip pain in the same areas where he bruised while trying to sleep in his cell. He suffered economic damages from a cancellation of an outdoor tour he was scheduled to lead in Alaska. The arrest warrants that remained in effect for several months prevented him from working.

The Quay County Sun’s emails last week requesting comment from Quay County manager Daniel Zamora or Quay County Detention Center administrator Christopher Birch went unanswered.


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