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Editorial: Big spike in inmate deaths at MDC raises some serious red flags

Without delving into medical histories, it would appear that the death of a 38-year-old woman booked in a littering case could – and probably should – have been prevented. Ditto a 35-year-old man arrested on a drunken driving charge and a 48-year-old man locked up on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.

Yes, people do die every day. And most folks booked into jail are unlikely spokespeople for healthy living, physical fitness or eschewing drugs and alcohol. But no one should die a preventable death on the public’s watch. And unfortunately it looks like this woman, two men and up to six other individuals may have.

It’s the job of jail health officials – and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque is large enough to have them – to protect those jailed. Yet, a Journal deep dive into deaths at MDC found nine people died over the past year while in custody of the state’s largest jail – eight during a five-month period from August 2020 to January 2021 – and none of COVID-19. For context, before 2020 there were a total of just 10 in-custody deaths at MDC in the previous four years, and zero in 2018.

What was/is going on?

Albuquerque attorney Peter Cubra says the recent spike in deaths is unprecedented. He should know. The longtime advocate for MDC inmates says he’s been working around the jail since 1984.

Autopsy and incident reports show the causes of death of the nine inmates who died in the past year vary from a heart attack to chronic ethanol abuse. Some may have been unavoidable, but six of the nine deaths appear to have occurred while inmates were detoxing from drugs or alcohol or in medical units, all while under the care of a medical contractor.

And all while taxpayers were shelling out between $105 and $174 per day to house each inmate.

Bernalillo County manager Julie Morgas Baca says the county is taking the deaths very seriously. She noted one death is too many. Good for her. The easy go-to would have been to attribute the deaths as part of booking 1,500 inmates a month, as the jail did in August.

Morgas Baca says she’s working with St. Louis-based Centurion – which the Bernalillo County Commission awarded a four-year, $53 million contract in 2018 to provide a wide array of medical services at MDC – to improve medical operations. MDC spokeswoman Julia Rivera says the jail and Centurion have developed an in-depth corrective action plan to address the spike in deaths. That’s an important step in rebuilding public confidence. They also need to provide some answers.

Because this county jail is no stranger to harsh criticism for the conditions its inmates live in. It’s under a decades-long federal settlement agreement that lays out more than 200 requirements for reform.

Some of the jail deaths have led to discipline – including a probationary corrections officer who was fired for sleeping on the job while an inmate hanged himself and a corrections officer who was put on notice for termination after an inmate died while detoxing from alcohol. Those who neglect their duties must be held accountable. The stakes are too high not to.

The spike in deaths also raises fundamental questions about who is being locked up and why. The 38-year-old woman booked in the littering case kicked over a cup and bowl in front of an officer in April and refused to pick up the cup. The officer issued her a summons for littering, but she failed to show up in court and was arrested. She was found unconscious and not breathing the next day in the jail’s detox unit. A night in lockup should not imperil one’s life.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur of the Law Offices of the Public Defender is correct that the legal system has to be more deliberate about who’s being jailed. The Journal has long argued that violent and repeat offenders, not misdemeanants with smart mouths, should be locked up at taxpayer expense. And the disturbing indicators that people are dying while detoxing should have city and county officials asking if jail is really the most appropriate and cost-effective place to take inebriates.

In this life, some deaths are inevitable – but at least on the surface several of these don’t look that way. There are a lot of questions at this point, and the families of inmates who have died in MDC custody, as well as the taxpayers who should have confidence they are funding a safe lockup, deserve the answers.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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