Paying the Price

The New Mexican Mafia put a price on Steve Benitez's head, but it's the taxpayers who will have to pay for the Arizona Department of Corrections' failure to protect him. Benitez's family has settled its wrongful-death claim with the State of Arizona for $900,000.

Benitez, a gang member turned informant, was murdered in prison last January after he was transferred into the general population despite a contract on his life. Benitez was sent, against his wishes, to Santa Rita, a yard crawling with La Eme members. He was dead in a matter of weeks, stabbed in the heart in his cell.

Benitez's murder was a key point in the lawsuit brought by 274 inmates being forced out of protective segregation under a new policy by DOC. The inmates in protective segregation--the "prison within the prison"--include informants, child molesters and crooked cops. Attorneys for the inmates argued that they could be harassed, beaten and even killed by other prisoners. At least four inmates who have left protective segregation have been killed in recent years. (See "Custody Battle," April 2, 1998, and "Caged Hit," June 11, 1998.)

Benitez had helped authorities avert a prison riot, and was released after serving most of his sentence in protective custody. However, he violated parole and was returned to prison. Benitez was supposed to be sent to a minimum-security facility, but through some mistake, he went to Santa Rita instead. Benitez initially refused to go, but was "counseled" by a guard, according to court records. Because Benitez couldn't name a specific person who threatened him, DOC's policy didn't allow him to be placed in protective segregation.

When cross-examined about Benitez, DOC Director Terry Stewart couldn't explain where DOC's procedures had broken down. DOC had committed "close to involuntary manslaughter," U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby said at a hearing last March. Bilby also criticized Stewart for an attitude which condoned a lack of prisoner safety.

DOC settled the inmate lawsuit after the hearing, calling the agreement a tactical decision. The department has about one year left to create a policy that will meet the court's standards. After the settlement, four DOC employees were disciplined for their parts in Benitez's death.

The state agreed to pay Benitez's family after a two-day mediation session, without litigation. "This settlement was a good one because it was done without a lot of acrimony," says Larry Hammond, the lawyer for Benitez's family. DOC declined to comment on the settlement.

--Chris Farnsworth

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Chris Farnsworth