Running a jail is no doubt difficult, especially one that averages 1,300 inmates. The tensions are high and the stakes are even higher.
The Bernalillo County commissioners made the right move in mid-July by raising the salaries of correctional officers by 13% across the board. Something had to be done. The chief of the Metropolitan Detention Center declared a staffing emergency twice this summer that required on-duty officers to stay and others to come in.
Compulsory work will drive down the morale of any workforce and inmates were being locked down for days at a time because of the staffing shortage without access to phones or showers or outdoor time.
The county has fortunately reported an uptick in applicants with a new starting pay of $18.90 per hour.
But there is another crisis at MDC — an apparent failure to provide proper medical care to the jail’s population.
Seventeen inmates have died in custody at MDC since the beginning of 2020, several of whom were withdrawing from drugs or alcohol.
Brentwood, Tennessee-based YesCare, the jail’s medical provider, went several months without meeting its contractual obligation to have two doctors present at the jail.
A recently released report by medical expert Muthusamy Anandkumar found the jail’s medical team out of compliance regarding screening for and managing inmate withdrawal symptoms. It says the high number of detox assessments done by each nurse is increasing risks to inmates. For example, no electrolyte powder and water was available for inmates going through withdrawal.
Forty-one-year-old Sao Chau, who was being held in the detox unit, died at the jail in August after reportedly vomiting over 57 hours. A detox nurse examined him and said medical personnel should be contacted if he continued feeling sick. The Vietnamese refugee asked for help 4 1/2 hours later. Another inmate helped put Chau in a wheelchair, where he lost consciousness and became limp before dying a short time later.
“Several sick call requests were reviewed, and the acuity level was not appropriate for the complaints,” according to Anandkumar’s report. It says there is a delay in responding to medical requests, nursing assessments are not detailed and nurses are not consistently reevaluating detainees.
Lawsuits about medical care and conditions at MDC have been ongoing for years. The McClendon settlement of 2015 lays out more than 250 requirements regarding mental heath services, medical services and confinement at the jail.
Yet, serious problems persist.
Bernalillo County commissioners approved a new, $64.9 million four-year contract with Corizon Health — the forerunner of YesCare — in September 2021. In the months that followed, medical personnel reported care only got worse. Anandkumar says in his report there is a “delay in care and inadequate care for sick inmates.”
The county has required YesCare to make changes to address concerns. The CEO of YesCare contends the company has eliminated many chronic care backlogs, simplified reporting, created checklists for medical staff and provided additional training to improve patient care.
Nonetheless, an attorney representing Chau’s brother says Chau was “left to die on the floor of this detox wing, vomiting, and in pain to the point where he couldn’t even walk.” Attorney Rick Sandoval says he expects to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county soon.
“I don’t know how many deaths it’s going to take for them to address the problem,” Sandoval says.
One of the county’s most basic responsibilities is to safely operate a jail to hold defendants until trial or for short-term sentences. It’s essential to the administration of justice. And taxpayers are forking over more than $62 million annually to run MDC.
The county needs to continue demanding improvement by YesCare. If YesCare isn’t up to the task, the county has a responsibility to taxpayers to find someone else who is.
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.