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Lifesaving program missing from county jail

Susie Schmitt, left, holding a photo of her son Rex Corcoran Jr., breaks down with her daughter Candice Quintana. Corcoran and Carmela DeVargas became sick in the Santa Fe County jail and later died. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

If the Santa Fe County jail had a Medically-assisted Treatment, or MAT, program, Susie Schmitt said she believes her son would still be alive today.

Her son, Rex Corcoran, was using methadone to help him with his addiction problem when he was taken to the jail.

MAT is applied when a medical provider prescribes such drugs as methadone or Suboxone to help people overcome addiction.

The drugs can help people from going into withdrawal, which can have painful symptoms that could make it harder to quit the drug.

In November 2019, Corcoran was arrested for a court-ordered compliance violation resulting from a previous DWI arrest and taken to the Santa Fe County jail. About a week later, he was dead.

Susie Schmitt, holding a photo of her son Rex Corcoran Jr., breaks down with her daughter Candice Quintana after delivering petitions to the Santa Fe County Manager’s Office on March 25, 2021. Corcoran and Carmela DeVargas each became sick in the Santa Fe County jail and later died. Schitt and Quintana want an investigation into the deaths. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Corcoran was determined to have suffered a fatal heart infection while at the jail and Schmitt, his mother, didn’t find out about it until he was already in an induced coma at Christus St. Vincent Hospital. She said when she called the jail’s warden to find out how her son was doing, she was told by the warden, “It’s not my problem.” Schmitt says her son was never given the proper treatment for his addiction at the jail and died because of it.

She also claims the jail didn’t even follow its own policies for contacting family members if an inmate is ill.

Unfortunately, Corcoran’s story isn’t unique.

Carmela DeVargas was also taken to the Santa Fe County jail around the same time as Corcoran. She had suffered from opioid addiction since she was a teenager, due to medication she was put on after an accident. She was prescribed Suboxone by her doctor and, according to her father, Antonio “Ikie” DeVargas, she was getting better.

However, her condition changed after she was arrested and taken to the Santa Fe County jail for missing a probation meeting. She didn’t have access to Suboxone there due to the jail’s lack of a MAT program.

DeVargas went into withdrawal and, out of desperation, ended up buying “street” Suboxone inside the jail. She ended up with an infection and died about a month after her arrest.

Now, the two families are working together to ensure that conditions at the Santa Fe County jail are properly investigated. On March 25, the two turned in a petition to County Manager Katherine Miller to get a grand jury investigation into the jail.

“We’re David fighting Goliath against these government officials,” Schmitt said, crying.

Tears wet Susie Schitt’s mask as she waits outside the Santa Fe County Manager’s Office to deliver petitions asking for an investigation into the deaths of her son Rex Corcoran Jr. and Carmela DeVargas, who both became sick in the Santa Fe County jail and later died. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

She said she’s not going to go away and won’t let people forget her son’s name, or what happened to him.

Policies and procedures

In New Mexico, the District Attorney’s offices assist in grand jury investigations.

First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said that, if the petition submitted by Schmitt and DeVargas meets certain criteria, it goes to a district court judge who can then call in a citizen’s grand jury to consider a charge against a party.

“If the petition gets all the signatures required and meets the constitutional requirements, the district attorney’s office is on standby and will be assisting with the grand jury’s investigation,” Carmack-Altwies said.

Right now, because of the pandemic, grand juries aren’t being called, Carmack-Altwies said.

Standing outside the Santa Fe County Manager’s Office, Elias Bernardino, deputy County Manager, second from left, listens to Antonio DeVargas talk about the death of his daughter Camela DeVargas. Susie Schmitt, right, with her daughter Candice Quintana, left, along with DeVargas were there delivering petitions for an investigation into the death of her son Rex Corcoran and Carmela DeVargas who both became sick in the Santa Fe County jail and later died. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Carmelina Hart, a spokesperson for Santa Fe County, said the county can’t comment on pending litigation, including the petition turned in by DeVargas and Schmitt.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Hank Hughes said he supports implementing a MAT program in the jail.

As executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, he has seen how addiction can spin someone’s life out of control. He said he knows that, sometimes, these treatments are the only things that work.

“I think it allows people to function much better than if they were to continue on the bad drugs they’re on, or if they were to try to go off things cold turkey,” Hughes said. “It sort of allows a middle road that gives people a way to function without suffering too much.”

Asked about substance abuse protocols at the jail, Hart said inmates are approved for Suboxone if they are pregnant and addicted to opiates or methadone, or have a current prescription for Suboxone and no other substances in their system.

The jail doesn’t currently offer methadone.

Inmates who are identified as suffering from addiction on intake are placed in a withdrawal protocol depending on the drugs they’re addicted to, Hart said.

For alcohol addiction, a person may be given Librium, vitamin B or Phenergran.

For opiates, a person may be given palliative medications to help with side effects – Phenergan for nausea, Imodium for diarrhea, Robaxin for muscle cramps and others, depending on the symptoms, she said.

Inmates suffering from opioid addiction are also given naltrexone, a drug that blocks the pleasure sensors in the brain that are activated by opiate use, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Acamprosate is also given to people with alcohol addiction, helping to restore the neurotransmitters in the brain and reduce the urge to drink, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“When COVID restrictions are lifted, the County will once again offer the MATRIX Model in a Correctional Setting, which is a recognized Evidence Based Program for men and for women,” Hart wrote in an email. “It is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral treatment curriculum for offenders with substance use disorders.”

She said the county’s treatment programs use non-opiate-based treatments on a case-by-case basis.

Treatment in tandem

Dr. Troy Watson, a fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice and medical director of Railyard Urgent Care, said Suboxone programs help people overcome their opioid addiction.

“It’s usually in tandem with a behavioral health expert that works in addiction medicine because you need counseling. This isn’t just a one and done, here’s medicine,” he said.

Suboxone is a drug used to treat opioid addiction. It works by relieving opioid withdrawal symptoms, but without the “high” people get from taking opioids recreationally.

If left untreated, opioid withdrawal can cause people to experience some of the worst flu-like symptoms of their life, Watson said. While it’s not fatal on its own, someone with co-morbidities going through opioid withdrawal can experience health complications.

However, alcohol withdrawal and withdrawal from such drugs as Valium can be fatal. For example, if someone is going through alcohol withdrawal, it can cause fatal seizures, Watson said.

It’s important if someone is addicted to these substances that they quit under medical supervision, he said.

“When it comes to opioids, if somebody were to die, it would be somebody that had profuse vomiting and diarrhea that wasn’t addressed in a medical setting,” Watson said. “Some of these other drugs, you can have seizures, and there’s a lot of different reasons for dying from benzodiazepine and alcohol withdrawal.”