Dozens marched outside Santa Fe County Jail earlier this month to look at the deaths of Carmela DeVargas and Rex Corcoran Jr Quality of medical care the facility provides to people struggling with drug use.
“We have tried to erect a memorial in their honor and we want to inform the community so that they understand what is going on,” Corcoran’s mother Yvonne “Susie” Schmitt said in a telephone interview. “Because nobody listens to us and deaths keep happening.”
Attorneys for the Corcoran and DeVargas families have filed lawsuits against the Santa Fe County Commission, prison officials and staff for unlawful death, alleging inmates were denied adequate medical care, including adequate treatment for substance use disorders.
The rally and lawsuits reflect an urge to get Santa Fe County to modernize care for drug addict inmates, who make up a significant portion of the prison population, according to a March investigative report to the commissioners.
Family members and lawyers say they want the prison to prescribe Suboxone and methadone – drugs used to treat drug addiction – to inmates with opioid use disorder.
“Given the many people who have died from inadequate medical care in the past 20 years, it appears there are some district officials who would rather spend money on lawyers and insurance than on improving care,” says attorney Mark Donatelli, who runs the Corcoran . represents family, wrote in an email. “This is a community prison, not a state prison, which is supposed to cover the medical and psychological needs of the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters arriving there.”
Santa Fe County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart declined to comment on the lawsuits. Attempts to reach prison guard Derek Williams through Hart last week were unsuccessful.
The district has yet to respond in court to the lawsuit Corcoran’s mother filed on Nov. 5.
District attorneys filed a motion in the DeVargas case, asking US District Judge Robert C. Brack to dismiss most of the lawsuits on grounds of government immunity.
Brack dismissed many of the lawsuits against individual county employees on these grounds, but issued an order on October 19 ruling that DeVargas’ lawsuit contained enough evidence to support some of her family’s claims against the county to move forward – including one who accused the county of violating its civil rights by failing to treat her opioid use disorder with Suboxone or a similar drug and by leaving prison in an unsanitary condition.
Both families say the inmates would not have died if they had been given access to the drugs they were taking before they were incarcerated – Suboxone for DeVargas and Methadone for Corcoran. Without these drugs, they were forced to go into withdrawal.
DeVargas, 34, was jailed for two months for a parole violation. She died of sepsis related to infection of the spinal cord and brain stem.
Her family’s complaint said her infection went untreated until it was irreversible, in part because prison officials were indifferent to her requests for medical care because she was addicted.
Corcoran, also 34, was jailed for a week for missing a compliance meeting related to a DWI conviction, his mother said Tuesday.
She saw him taken into custody on November 5, 2019. The next time she saw him a week later, he was in the intensive care unit for life support.
Corcoran had previously been in Santa Fe County Jail, according to his lawsuit, and the facility knew he was taking methadone to treat a drug problem and had previously suffered severe withdrawal.
But his methadone was not resumed and no one monitored his condition for three days, the lawsuit said.
When Corcoran fell in the shower and deflated himself on November 9, he was taken to the medical department for observation, but despite his deteriorating condition, he was not treated, the lawsuit said. Eighteen hours later he was found to have collapsed.
The next morning, he was hospitalized for “altered mental health,” as his complaint states.
He was put on life support on November 11th and pronounced dead on November 13th.
Donatelli’s office said Corcoran’s official cause of death was infectious endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart muscle caused by bacteria or germs that get through the bloodstream.
“He couldn’t pick up a phone and ask for help,” said his mother. “If he was out here he could have done that.
Treatment with methadone or suboxone – often referred to as MAT, short for Medication Assisted Treatment – has become the standard of care for substance use disorders in New Mexico and across the country, according to some experts.
The Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque started a program in September to make buprenorphine available [one of the main ingredients in Suboxone] to all inmates who were found to have an opioid use disorder upon admission.
Studies have shown the drug cut people’s risk of overdose in half and doubled their chances of long-term recovery, according to a Nov. 8 report on National Public Radio.
Santa Fe County has a version of a MAT program, said district spokeswoman Hart.
But it’s not like Bernalillo County or any other.
Hart said inmates can be prescribed naltrexone – a drug that helps an addict stay drug-free by blocking the effects of narcotics – once they stop using opioids and drugs that target the withdrawal symptoms: nausea, diarrhea , Muscle cramps and itching.
But only “certain inmates” – including pregnant women, those who have an up-to-date prescription for Suboxone, and those who haven’t tested positive for other drugs that don’t mix well with the drugs – are allowed to receive Suboxone, Hart said.
Nobody is allowed to receive methadone.
Dr. Eileen Barrett, associate professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, said delivering Suboxone to inmates is safer, cheaper, and more effective in helping people make long-term recovery than making them quit cold turkey and go into withdrawal.
But she said the treatment is often misunderstood, even by medical professionals.
“We often see them as moral weaknesses and say, ‘If you cared about it enough, you could go through it yourself,'” Barrett said. “It’s a judgment, and it’s medically incorrect. … It’s literally the same as saying, ‘Why don’t you just get through cancer?’ ”
The Legislative Finance Committee’s program evaluation unit, which reported in August that August drug and alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico hit an all-time high in 2020, identified the criminal justice system as “one of the most glaring gaps in the treatment system.”
“Inadequate access to effective treatment in prisons and prisons … helps sustain cycles of substance abuse and incarceration,” the report said.
Of the county’s five commissioners, two – Anna Hamilton and Rudy Garcia – did not respond to requests for comment on the possibility of expanding drug treatment in the prison. Commissioner Anna Hansen, reached by phone on Veterans Day, told a reporter: “It’s a public holiday and I just woke up. There was a lawsuit and a lawsuit. Why don’t you ask the director? ”
Commissioners Hank Hughes and Henry Roybal said they were ready to consider changes to Santa Fe County’s guidelines on drug use.
But movement on this topic cannot come so quickly.
“The district is currently not actively evaluating changes to its MAT program,” wrote spokeswoman Hart in an email.