Special report

Taos detainees talk addiction

June, 2017 Taos County Adult Detention Center

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Stephen Bunker, 36

“I grew up on the streets pretty much,” said Stephen Bunker inside B pod.

He spent his first years along the southern coast of Florida. His parents were abusive, Bunker said, and so he was removed from his first home at an early age.

He spent his childhood bouncing around a series of orphanages in Palm Beach, Florida, and when he reached the age of 15, he ran away and hopped a train. It took him up through the Florida panhandle and into a country that he had never seen before. He hopped other trains. He hitchiked.

His course was mostly aimless, he said. Every place he stopped was different – except for one thing. “Drugs were popular everywhere I went,” he said.

Alcohol came into his life first, followed by cocaine and methamphetamine. As heroin started spreading across the United States in the mid-1990s, he began to use that as well.

When he would get picked up in some town far from the one he had left, law enforcement would send him back to where he started in Palm Beach.

He set out to wander for good once he turned 18. Throughout his travels, drinking and drugs formed his only course.

He said that alcohol is still his greatest challenge. He said recently that he would sometimes drink as much as two fifths of whiskey in a single day.

“I wake up drinking it,” he said. “I go to sleep drinking it.”

Bunker eventually found homes on farms and ranches. Just a few years ago, he hired on at a ranch in Montana, where he met a girl, he said. Together, they moved down to Taos, where, once again, drugs and alcohol were easy to find.

In May, law enforcement arrested Bunker on aggravated battery and assault charges. According to court records, Bunker had been drinking with a friend and a roommate, allegedly became infuriated and started throwing punches. A Taos County Sheriff's Deputy would arrive at the residence to find both individuals with lacerations to their face.

"He told me he has been through this before and knows the routine, and to take him to jail," the deputy wrote in their report.

Bunker was incarcerated at the detention center later that day.

He met Abe Gordon while incarcerated. As a peer support counselor with Inside Out Recovery, Gordon agreed to serve as Bunker's advocate. Along with support from Delancey Street Foundation, Gordon was able to persuade the court system in Taos to grant Bunker acceptance into the program – a long-term recovery center located along the Río Grande north of Española.

Bunker was released the day of The Taos News interview, on June 29. Before he left, he said he knew how easy it would be to leave his problems behind again – to cross a border and leave his charges where he picked them up.

“I’m a train hopper, you know? And these are misdemeanors. They can’t extradite me. I can just cross a state line and they couldn’t do anything," he said. "But I want to. I want to do it. I want to stop drinking and do something other than work for $10 dollars an hour for the rest of my life.”

He believes that getting clean and sober means leaving Taos, where he has seen drugs and alcohol ruin the lives of many friends and acquaintances.

“It’s just drugs here, man,” he said. “You see these kids that grow up here. They’re all on heroin. Everyone you know has family members that have been to prison and been on heroin. It’s just the way it is.”

In January, Bunker was at Delancey Street, but the program's rules did not allow a follow-up interview. New Mexico court records show he has picked up no additional charges since June, 2017.

Matthew Mendez, 27

“I was playing football and all the football players were doing it,” said Matthew Mendez.

He means Oxycodone, an opioid that has been abused all across the United States over the past 20 years, often to the point of overdose, and often leading to heroin use.

The problem, it seems, starts as early as high school.

It’d go like this, Mendez said: A football player would get injured and go to the doctor, who would write a prescription – usually for an opiate-based pain medication, sometimes coupled with other therapies, but sometimes not.

Addiction came quickly, and with a supply of pills available to one player, addiction spread to others.

Mendez was one player to get caught up in taking these new pills to get high, and he soon started doing things he said he would have never otherwise done to get it.

“My dad was in a wheelchair,” Mendez said. “He used to get Oxy 15s. I used to steal his medication.”

Pretty soon, he soon turned to burglarizing and robbing homes around Taos County to find items to fence, desperate to support his habit in any way he could.

A friend, who had started dealing heroin, told Mendez that he was missing out on something better – heroin.

“It’s a lot cheaper and it’s a better high,” the dealer told him.

Even through his addiction, Mendez managed to enroll in college, where he studied nursing. “I was an A student before I got into trouble,” he said.

In May, he was picked up on burglary and forgery charges. Everything came to a halt.

He doesn't know when he will be released, but when that happens, he says that he wants to continue his education, with a particular focus on helping recovering addicts who have also been incarcerated.

But Mendez knows that he has a steep hill to climb. He still hasn't shaken his addiction.

For others considering using an opioid – whether a painkiller or heroin – Mendez said simply, “If an opportunity ever comes your way, just shut it down as soon as it comes to you because all it takes is that one hit. From there, you can get stuck. For me, it was just that one try. From there, I was finished, and my life has been going downhill ever since.”

Efforts to reach Mendez for a follow-up interview in January went unanswered. New Mexico court records show his trial is scheduled for April.

Michelle DeHerrera, 41

“My addiction started in Riverside, California,” Michelle DeHerrera recalled as she sat at a table inside the woman’s pod.

Gangbanging was a way of life in the Riverside barrios she grew up in, she said, and drugs were what fueled that lifestyle.

She became embroiled in both before she was 13. She started using methamphetamine, a popular and cheap narcotic in poor American towns across the United States.

When she and her sister moved out to Taos to be with their ailing father, who was dying of a battle with AIDs, DeHerrera thought that moving out of the neighborhoods she grew up in might make for a clean start.

But drugs, she said, were just as prevalent in small town Taos as they were in Riverside – and heroin, a drug that once paled in comparison to the meth that she had seen trafficked through her hometown, seemed to be everywhere.

She would continue her using, occasionally countering the pitched highs of meth with the numbing, soporific lows of a shot of heroin.

The man she met and would later marry in Taos also used, she said. They had two daughters, but their shared addiction led to another affliction that pervades Taos homes – domestic violence – leading DeHerrera to end the marriage.

DeHerrera’s addiction remained, however, as it did for other members of her family.

After DeHerrera's father passed away, her mother began abusing prescription opioids, and DeHerrera would later find her inside her home, cold and blue from a fatal overdose.

Just last year, DeHerrera said she, too, suffered from an overdose she was able to come back from.

When she arrived at the detention center in April, she did not have the option to leave her children with grandparents.

Like many of the other women in the women’s pod, her children – two daughters – are the remaining, unaccounted for consequence of a partnership formed and then broken by addiction.

For DeHerrera, piecing her family back together has been a lifelong struggle.

In late June, she said that the Taos County court system was discussing sending her to prison. She feels, however, that each time she is incarcerated, things get worse. She sinks deeper.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We’re not violent criminals. A lot of us are mothers. It’s like, let us move forward. We’re trying to get back to our children, trying to get a home and a job.”

“We’ve made mistakes and we’re paying for them,” she said, “but they need to be able to help us get through it.”

In December, DeHerrera was reincarcerated at the Taos County Adult Detention Center for violating the conditions of her probation.

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