‘Tragic and horrible’: Nine at MDC have died over past year

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Over the past year, nine people in the custody of the state’s largest jail have died – and eight of those deaths occurred during a five-month period from August 2020 to January 2021.

It’s an unprecedented spike, says attorney Peter Cubra, a longtime advocate for inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

(Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’ve been working around this jail since 1984,” Cubra said. “This number of deaths is astronomically higher than any other time in history and it should be treated as a crisis. If it’s not being treated as a crisis it means these people are being devalued by the government.”

Before 2020 there were 10 inmate deaths at MDC in the past four years combined, with none in 2018 and five in 2015.

Over the past year, none of the inmates died from COVID-19. Instead, autopsy and incident reports show, the causes vary: a heart attack, two suicides, two deaths from chronic ethanol abuse, pneumonia and other medical issues.

Two men died within 24 hours of each other.

An inmate sleeps inside the Metropolitan Detention Center detox unit in 2019.

But six of the nine deaths appear to have occurred while inmates were detoxing from drugs or alcohol or in medical units – all under the care of medical contractor Centurion – a statistic Cubra finds telling.

“It’s clear that when people die while detoxing from alcohol or drugs that means they either were in the wrong place and needed a different level of care or that the services in the place they were housed are inadequate,” he said.

MDC deaths mix of suicide, medical episodes and issues during detox

The Bernalillo County Commission voted in 2018 to award Centurion, a St. Louis-based company, a four-year $53 million contract to provide a wide array of medical services at MDC.

Julie Morgas Baca, Bernalillo County manager, said one death is “too many” and the county is taking the issue very seriously and has been in contact with the provider.

“We’re working with Centurion on improving the operations out there as far as them administering the medical contract,” she said, calling the spike in deaths “tragic and horrible.”

“It’s our job to make sure that we communicate our concerns and that we’re all at the table addressing this together … this is all of our problem.”

In a statement, MDC Chief Greg Richardson said the jail takes every loss of life very seriously.

“My staff along with our medical and psychiatric providers review and analyze loss of life to ensure we are employing the best practices and procedures,” he said. “The increase of in-custody deaths is very concerning to us at MDC and we are striving to understand what is occurring in our facility to ensure that we are giving the best continuity of care possible.”

At least two cases have led to discipline for the officers involved.

Richardson said in the suicide of Ronny Pacheco a corrections officer is on administrative leave and a probationary officer – who was sleeping when Pacheco hanged himself – has been terminated. In the case of Nickolas Garcia – who died while detoxing from alcohol – he said one officer has been put on notice of action to be terminated.

He did not provide further details in those cases, citing an ongoing investigation.

But inmate advocates also point to Centurion health care services, with Cubra saying “the medical and mental health care in the jail is unconstitutional because it is so poor.”

A union official accused the medical staff of often leaving officers to carry the burden of medical help in life-or-death scenarios.

Al Parks, an attorney for Centurion, declined to discuss the MDC deaths with the Journal. But the company, in a statement, said it strives to provide quality care to the patients it serves.

MDC spokeswoman Julia Rivera did not respond to questions regarding Centurion’s services “due to the fact that we have not received all the data to analyze at this time.”

She said “as with any circumstances” MDC Chief Richardson authorizes a thorough investigation into every inmate death by the Office of Professional Standards.

“Should there be areas identified for process or policy standards to be improved we actively do so. MDC looks for training, equipment and policy changes accordingly,” Rivera said. “Along with (Centurion), we have an in-depth corrective action plan developed.”

‘I’m just detoxing’

The last time Peggy Bryant saw her stepson was an afternoon in mid-September. Samuel Bryant, 46, had come over to get something he had been keeping at her house.

She had raised him since he was a gangly 12-year-old and they had remained close after her husband’s death in 2016.

Peggy said Samuel was looking sick and gray when he left her that day, and she kissed him and told him to get help.

Instead, he was pulled over for a traffic violation. He was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear in a domestic violence case and was booked into jail.

Hours later, Samuel was dead from the toxic effects of methamphetamine with contributing factors of opiate withdrawal. The Office of the Medical Investigator determined his death was an accident.

“He had a heart of gold, he helped everybody…,” Peggy said. “He and I had our fights but we always made up and he never held anything against me … He was a very good man, he just got hooked on drugs and that took him down the road.”

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office incident reports obtained by the Journal in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request show that Samuel was booked into MDC on Sept. 22 and placed in a single occupancy cell in the jail’s detox unit.

Around 11:30 p.m. correctional officers checked on him and saw he had vomited on the floor.

“When asked if he needed anything, inmate Bryant responded with ‘I’m just detoxing’ and asked to take a shower,” the report states. “During graveyard shift it is not normal procedure to allow inmates to shower, so his request was declined. Both (correctional officers) Salas and Fields reported hearing inmate Bryant bang the wall and bunk and yell out throughout the night displaying his discomfort of his detox.”

The report states that Samuel was checked on hourly and was last seen lying on his stomach around 2:30 a.m. About 50 minutes later a “detox nurse” went to take his vitals, and he was found unresponsive.

Officers and medical staff began trying to revive him but by 4:06 a.m. those measures were halted. Samuel was dead.

Peggy said she doesn’t know the whole story about what happened to her stepson but what she does know – that he was alone in a cell and suffering when he died – makes her very mad.

“I found out the other day that my grief regarding Sam and Philip, my husband, will sneak up on me at the strangest times and just about make me fall on the floor…,” Peggy said.

Samuel’s son has started the process of filing a wrongful death suit with the help of an attorney who has filed numerous suits against Centurion over the years.

‘History of trauma and poverty’

The county jail has been under a yearslong settlement agreement that lays out more than 200 requirements for reform. The agreement was the result of a 1995 lawsuit filed by Jimmy Lee McClendon and although he died several years into the litigation the case continues to bear his name.

Along with that agreement, the county formed the Detention Facility Management Oversight Board.

Chairman Rick Miera said jail officials had apprised members of the deaths at the monthly board meetings. However, he said they had not been told about any security or training issues.

He concluded that the people who are getting arrested these days “are taking longer than normal to detox, they’re coming in with different drugs.”

“It’s unfortunate in this last year – for a variety of reasons, many of which you can imagine – more people are drinking more and they’re coming in with more health and mental health problems than ever before,” Miera said.

Cubra, however, was indignant about this explanation.

“First, this is admitting that people who have no business being in jail but should be in a treatment facility are being jailed,” Cubra said. “Second, you are ignoring 35 years of history. I have personally observed countless people who are extremely intoxicated in the jail detox and intake units.” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur of the Law Offices of the Public Defender echoed this sentiment, saying that the legal system has to be more deliberate about who’s being jailed. He pointed out that some of the people who died were locked up for misdemeanors, like littering or DWI.

“Many of the people who interact with the criminal justice system come from a history of poverty and trauma, subsequent drug addiction and coinciding mental and physical health issues,” Baur wrote in a statement. “It all comes packaged together. You can’t just stick someone in a jail cell and assume they’ll be OK or expect them to just snap out of addiction or mental health issues.”

One of the biggest mysteries involves the death of Joleen Nez on Jan. 30.

Nez was arrested the day before on a warrant in a littering case from April. Police say Nez kicked over a cup and bowl in front of an officer in Southeast Albuquerque. When the officer asked her to pick up the trash, Nez only picked up the bowl – but not the cup – and was issued a criminal summons for littering.

She failed to show up to a court hearing and was arrested months later.

According to incident reports, Nez was booked into the detox unit and, around noon, was found by another inmate to be unconscious and not breathing. An inmate said Nez had been “vomiting throughout the day.”

MDC staff found a pulse and Nez was taken to University of New Mexico Hospital where she was pronounced dead on Feb. 3. The investigator in the case was not given a cause of death and was told the report could take “several weeks.”

When asked about Nez’s medical treatment, Rivera forwarded a statement from Centurion saying the company is committed to “providing high-quality healthcare services to all the patients we serve.”

“We cannot comment on any patient information due to federal privacy laws and our own policies,” the statement read.

MDC understaffed

Rivera said the correctional facility industry generally is understaffed. She said MDC has 375 security personnel and the staffing plan calls for 476 – and the current staffing vacancy is 20.38%.

A union official says the MDC staff is not only dwindling, but many are shaken up.

Joseph Trujeque, president of the Corrections Officers Association, said the last year has taken its toll on officers and added that they had to pick up the slack of what he described as Centurion’s “disorganized” medical staff.

“During some of these deaths, (Centurion) was taking over and they were lacking, I’ll put it that way, in their responses,” he said.

Trujeque said that officers, who only take one CPR class, ended up doing CPR sometimes for 40 minutes.

“When the medical professionals got there, they weren’t taking over right away. That put the burden on the officers. That prolonged exposure – it affects them mentally,” Trujeque said.

He said a number of officers – some involved in “back-to-back” inmate deaths – are seeking counseling. One officer ended up quitting as a result.

“It’s a traumatic experience for anybody that has to see that or go through that, let alone hands-on trying to save somebody or cut somebody down,” he said. “That’s an event that stays with you for a while.”

Trujeque said that right after Centurion took over in early 2019, its staff “dropped the ball” in the death of Vicente Villela. Villela was killed by guards who were restraining him in a prone position.

As guards did CPR on Villela, Trujeque said the Centurion staff wouldn’t assist until their equipment arrived but then didn’t have keys to unlock the medical cart, the oxygen tanks hadn’t been filled and the defibrillator wasn’t charged.

Things didn’t get better from there, Trujeque said.

“In the beginning of the year it was pretty disheartening,” Trujeque said of 2020, recalling an incident where he saw an officer doing CPR on an inmate on a gurney as medical staff was “walking behind him.”

He said conditions now are “moving forward” but there was a lot of confusion in the beginning with regards to policies and procedure.

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