Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
On the evening of Oct. 25, the men in lockdown in the Echo unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center could hear through their cell walls what sounded like a beating and a voice screaming for help.
Soon, there was a chorus crying out.
By the time corrections officers responded, Leon Casiquito had been beaten to death. His cellmate, 25-year-old Telea Lui, is charged with murder in his death.
A 20-year-old, who had been held in the pod for the past five months and knew both men, told the Journal that he heard the cries and that it took a long time for officers to respond.
He said that’s how the fight ended up turning deadly.
“The reason why is … you all (corrections officers) is not in here is why he’s dead,” the young man said in a jailhouse phone interview shortly after the incident.
He said that if the unit hadn’t been on lockdown “that probably never would have happened.”
Defense attorneys, advocates, corrections officers and the jail’s administration say staffing at the facility has become dangerously low.
“Inmates regularly report being locked in their cells all weekend every weekend — and often on Monday and Friday as well and sometimes during other days of the week, depending on staffing levels,” attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith said. “This is causing a lot of tensions among inmates in the jail. Inmates need time out of the cell to call their attorneys for their pending cases. They also need to be able to call their families and take showers, and when they are stuck in their cells without any officers in their housing units, they are unable to do any of this. When there are no officers in their housing units, no one notices if cellmates attack each other, and that is what happened with the recent murder at MDC.”
Earlier this month, in an attempt to bolster recruitment and retention, Bernalillo County increased starting pay for cadets, academy graduates and those who pass their one-year probationary period to make salaries more competitive with similar jobs in the area. It also offers a $2,000 first-year hiring bonus and longevity incentives.
The $18 an hour that cadets receive is $3 more per hour than those at the state Corrections Department. However, at $18.90 an hour and $19.85 an hour for those who graduate from the academy and complete their first year respectively, corrections officers are still making less than the $20 an hour those at state-run prisons make after graduation.
In the months before COVID-19 entered New Mexico, retention and recruitment officials proposed several initiatives to boost morale.
In an interview, MDC Chief Greg Richardson said the administration has started on some of those, including launching a peer support group in September and improving the break room for corrections officers to give them a rest during their shifts. Funding has been allocated for the break room, but the work will not be done for several months, Richardson said.
Attorney: County violated the law
The McClendon settlement agreement — reached in 2015 after a decades-old lawsuit about the conditions of the jail — sets more than 250 requirements for the county to be in compliance.
Smith, one of the attorneys representing incarcerated people in the settlement agreement, said the county is “woefully below” compliance when it comes to staffing and is not fulfilling its obligations.
“We believe these conditions also violate the Constitution as well as the consent decree,” Smith said. “I think it violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, because these things are leading to assaults, medical problems and lack of ability to access attorneys.”
The Echo unit was not fully staffed the evening of 41-year-old Casiquito’s death, according to a roster obtained by the Journal. Three corrections officers were each overseeing two pods — each pod has 32 cells — including the pod where Casiquito and Lui were housed.
Joseph Trujeque, the president of the Local 2499 union representing MDC, said that if the jail had been fully staffed, there would have been an officer overseeing each of the eight pods as well as two relief officers. Instead, there were five officers and two relief officers. Officers are tasked with checking on each cell periodically. According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, Lui admitted beating up Casiquito, saying that his cellmate had been “hitting him in his legs in a nagging manner” the previous day.
“Lui went on to describe that on today’s date Casiquito continued hitting him in the same nagging manner,” a detective wrote. “Lui stated that Casiquito left the cell for their designated free time and when he returned to the cell he motioned as if he was going to hit him again. Lui admitted to punching Casiquito in the head, and then going into a rage.”
Trujeque said that if there had been more staff, the inmates wouldn’t have been confined to the rooms and they could have asked for help before the situation got so bad.
“If those two inmates had the problems that they had with each other, they would have been able to voice that to the officers and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m having a problem with this guy, or this guy’s having a problem with me, we need to be moved,’ ” Trujeque said. “But that interaction wasn’t there, because we were short-staffed.”
Richardson, who has led the jail since May 2020, didn’t dispute that understaffing played a part in the incident.
“Like anything else, when you have a shortage of manpower, it affects all the areas of the facility and the operations, to include response times, proactive measures, and identifying potential problems or having a better chance of stopping an incident before it occurs,” Richardson said. “It’s reasonable to say that, yes … when you have less staff, you know, you have less coverage, so you’re going to have some effect on operations and security.”
He said the incident is still being investigated by the Office of Professional Standards to see if personnel could have done anything differently or if any policies, procedures, or trainings need to be changed.
Documents obtained by the Journal suggest that since the slaying, staffing has remained just as sparse or even lower.
Lockups struggling across the nation
Staffing shortages are not unique to MDC — the problem is straining detention centers across the state and the country.
In September, Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico Counties, made a presentation to the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee & Legislative Health and Human Services Committee detailing inmate populations and staff vacancy rates at 32 detention centers across the state.
After a sharp drop in the jail population at the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the number of people behind bars has been steadily climbing back up to pre-pandemic levels. At 5,280 at the end of September, the count was only about 700 fewer than it was in early March 2020 when the pandemic reached New Mexico. This does not include those locked up in prisons — who have already been convicted of a felony.
As of Sept. 21, the average staff vacancy rate statewide was 22.97%, but in an interview, Philips said she wouldn’t be surprised if it has since increased. For instance, in September, MDC was reporting a 24.74% staff vacancy rate. Now, officials say it’s 31.7%.
“Unfortunately, when you have a facility that has high vacancy rates, people are working a lot of overtime,” Philips said. “If vacancies are up and populations are up, you know, the job becomes much harder. And I think that doesn’t help you retain staff.”
At least in Bernalillo County, understaffing at MDC has resulted in ripple effects throughout the criminal justice system.
Jennifer Barela, district defender for the 2nd Judicial District, said shortages — as well as public health measures put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic — have restricted defense attorneys’ access to clients in the jail.
“It’s affected dockets, because sometimes we’re not able to talk to clients,” Barela said. “We have to ask judges if we can talk to them virtually by utilizing breakout rooms on Zoom and so it slows down court dockets.”
About 170 have left MDC this year
When the pandemic began, officers who were already unhappy with their salary — which Trujeque said is lower than those with other jobs in public safety or law enforcement — expressed concern about coming into a congregate setting and more and more began using their leave to take time off. Citing security concerns, a county spokeswoman would not say how many people work at MDC but she did say it’s short about 150 corrections officers. Trujeque said about 170 officers have left the jail this year, including retirements, resignations and terminations.
Trujeque, who has worked at MDC for 21 years, said this means an already difficult job has been made even more stressful for those who remain.
“I’m prior military, I was on a battlefield, and I will tell you that coming to work in a correctional environment every day and seeing things like (the homicide) that’s happened … it’s just like being on a battlefield. You suffer those same mental scars,” he said. “… If you have a person that starts out in corrections, and works 10 years, they’re going to be a totally different person because of the environment that they have to work in.”
Trujeque said that in the past 18 months, those feelings have only intensified.
“You’re always looking over your shoulder, every minute of the day,” Trujeque said. “When you’re inside those walls, you’re looking over your shoulder. The inmates are not the only ones that are in the prison or in the jail. We are too, just like they are.”
Both Trujeque and Richardson say they worry every day about the possibility of a riot or the inmates taking over the jail. It’s a common fear among staffers.
In October, a discussion at a union meeting included a story about how a woman who works in the mailroom saw letters from inmates who were “discussing on how easy it is to do anything if they wanted, as they know the staffing is really bad,” according to an internal email obtained by the Journal.
And over the summer, a sergeant at the jail sent a letter to Bernalillo County commissioners, the county manager, deputy county manager and the Detention Facility Management Oversight Board pleading for help and action and warning about the possibility of a riot.
Sgt. Robert Mason, who has been with MDC for 10 years and in corrections for 12, said the jail lacks the security personnel necessary to operate and keep employees and inmates safe. He warned about the adverse affects lockdowns are having on the inmates, who are kept in their cells for “48 to 96 hours consecutively at a given time week after week.”
“We cannot keep locking the facility down under the premise of low staffing without taking proactive steps to staff the facility,” Mason wrote. “There is no one solution to doing this, but there seems to be one excuse that we commonly hear, lack of staffing. Unfortunately, this excuse is going to be the reason that something significant happens, with an enormous financial cost, and possibly costing lives to be lost. If we are not doing all we can to recruit and staff this facility, then it is my opinion that we are fully liable and must answer to the citizens when the time comes.”
MDC weighs pivot to different tactics
MDC has been a direct supervision facility since 2003, when the jail was moved from Downtown to a sprawling building at the end of a long, straight road in the deserted outskirts of the county. That means officers are supposed to be stationed in every pod and walk from unit to unit checking on inmates. Under indirect supervision, an officer can see multiple pods at once from one area with the assistance of cameras.
Richardson said direct supervision was thought to be more effective in discouraging sexual assaults and attacks.
Now, he said, it might make sense to change tactics. “When you’re in this situation, you want to look at as much as you can — different ideas and different ways of doing things to better manage your staffing and to create a safer environment, manage a population and keep everything up and running in a safer and more secure environment.”
A Journal investigation in March found that nine people died in the custody of MDC in less than a year. Two of those deaths were suicides, and others were from alcohol abuse or the toxic effects of methamphetamine. Since then, four more have died, including Casiquito.
Suicides, suicide attempts and suspected overdoses increased in the past year. In June, an internal email asked staffers to be alert and err on the side of caution due to “an increase in suicide attempts and drug related events.”
In September, officers confiscated what was apparently a bag with more than 200 fentanyl pills from a woman in the restricted housing unit. At one point, so many people were jumping from a second floor in apparent suicide attempts that the administration constructed new railings to try to curb the problem. “We did have a rash of people doing that,” Richardson said.
“There are some units where we ran the railing all the way up to the ceiling to where that can’t happen anymore.”
Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.