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Women caught in cycle of drug abuse, incarceration

CARLSBAD – Arrested for a 2014 DUI offense, “Kat” was booked in the Eddy County Detention Center in May 2017.

The 48-year-old was one of more than 60 women incarcerated in the jail in October.

Drugs, she said, consumed some of the women she’s encountered, women who have found themselves in jail time and again because of substance abuse.

“They tell me, ‘When I get out, it’s just right there waiting for me,’ ” she said. “Once they get it again, they come right back in for the same charges.

“I pray for them because some of them have no place to go.”

Substance abuse charges filed against women in Eddy County in 2017 totaled 105; in 2011 that number was only 41.

Brandy Gere was incarcerated in October on a pending charge of resisting, evading and obstructing an officer. Gere, a drug user, said she was working to break her addiction.

“It’s way easier to get them than to stay away from them, that’s for sure,” Gere said.

Booking clerk Maria Saiz completes the booking process for a new inmate at the Eddy County Detention Center in October. (Dejanay Booth/Carlsbad Current Argus/AP)

While awaiting a court hearing in October, Gere learned she was pregnant with her fourth child. Wiping tears from her eyes, she said, “This sucks. I miss my kids.”

In December, Eva Quiroga was arrested for possession of a controlled substance, Maribel Harrelson for drug trafficking and Valerie Fierro for a probation violation.

“That’s the struggle of the day, is being without our kids,” Quiroga said. “There’s different ways that I should’ve went about it, but at the same time, I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I just know I can make it better in life for the future of my kids and my family.”

“It’s hard to get back on your feet with somebody judging you,” Harrelson said.

The women were concerned their criminal history would affect their day-to-day lives once released, but each said she is working to make the time served their last.

Fierro wants to enroll in college courses and study psychology.

More than 950 women were incarcerated in the Eddy County Detention Center in 2017, according to data from the detention center.

Detention center officials have struggled to accommodate the female population. In November, the women were relocated to the detention center’s main building.

They had previously been housed in a second building, the former juvenile detention center. There, female inmates slept on temporary bunks, said Eddy County Detention Center Warden Billy Massingill.

Massengill said the move was partially due to overcrowding. On any given day, the detention center could be over capacity by 5 to 10 women.

The former juvenile detention center is now used as a special management unit that holds inmates – male and female – with behavioral health issues.

“It’s all driven by numbers,” Massingill said of the move. “We’ve got more inmates than beds.”

On average, 54 women were incarcerated daily – a decrease from 58 in 2016 and an increase of 29 from 2013. Forty women are currently incarcerated.

Despite the move, Massingill said, the jail could still face an overcrowding issue as the number of inmates changes every day.

Expensive health care

The detention center receives about $13 million in its annual budget.

About $875,000 was budgeted for medical services for the 2017-18 fiscal year – a decrease from $967,000 in 2016-2017. In 2013-2014 the budget for medical services was only$313,738.

Registered nurse Marlena Pell said she has treated inmates with a variety of medical issues including diabetes, high blood pressure, and alcohol and drug withdrawal.

“As a nurse, I’ve got to have the same relationship with inmates that I do (with patients) in the hospital,” Pell said. “They still have issues. They still have problems.”

Officials said they believe medical services increased due to effects of drug use.

“They are riddled with ailments directly from the drugs,” said Capt. Sherry Hall.

Cmdr. James McCormick, with Pecos Valley Drug Task Force, said methamphetamine and heroin are the top drugs of choice in the region, followed by marijuana and cocaine. Prescription opioid abuse has recently become a concern for law enforcement.

“Women are a lot more involved in prescription drugs than men,” he said, mentioning that prescription drugs are often stolen or prescribed unlawfully by doctors or nurse practitioners.

Breaking the cycle

As an officer, Sgt. Felicia Voldahl would like to see the inmate population at zero.

That means addressing larger issues – substance abuse and behavioral health – that cause recidivism.

“Kat,” who has spent her confinement as a witness to the effect of substance abuse on women in the community, feels the same.

“I see females come and go, the same females. I try to tell them, ‘When you get out there, do your best. Try to better yourself.’ But it seems like it just goes in one ear and out the other, and they come back in two weeks,” Kat said. “This is not where you want to be.”