Taos County jail sees COVID surge

Jailers accused of trafficking drugs to detainees; detainees suffering overdoses, some fatal, at least one that resulted in a lawsuit against the county commissioners; numerous suicides; allegations of excessive force made against the interim director, Leroy Vigil, who held his role for a year and a half.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Taos County Adult Detention Center has, for years now, been one of our area’s most troubled institutions. That’s why, when the Taos News heard this week that the county had hired a new person to run it — without saying anything about filling that critical post — it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for our county’s current leadership and their efforts to be transparent about important personnel changes.

That the Taos News learned about the new jail director, Danny Garcia, only after a detainee was found dead in his bunk the morning of Jan. 5, also doesn’t seem to bode well.

But change takes time, and we hope Garcia will prove to be the strong leader that the facility needs in light of its deeply problematic history.

Speaking on the phone Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 12), Commissioner District V Chair Candyce O’Donnell acknowledged that the county should have made better efforts to notify the public that Garcia had been hired. She said he started just recently, around the end of December. She also noted that the county administration staff hasn’t been immune to ongoing worker shortages that have hampered many organizations during the pandemic. Further complicating the communication process, Brent Jaramillo, county manager, has been out this week for medical emergencies, he told the Taos News. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Nonetheless, communication with the public should be one facet of government that is prepped to never go down — whatever the extenuating circumstances might be.

O’Donnell answered many of the questions the Taos News and the public should have already had in hand: Garcia is a former New Mexico State Police officer who was selected by an independent committee that did not include the county commission. O’Donnell explained that the commission, by policy, does not become involved in new hires at the county, partly due to potential conflicts of interest. Of course, conflicts of interest can crop up anywhere. Brent Jaramillo’s wife, Tammy Jaramillo, for example, was hired to become part of the county’s healthcare assistance programs. Then, in 2020, an alleged conflict between her and former jail director Karen De La Roche, led to criminal investigations opening into both officials.

De La Roche is one of many directors who have come and gone from the jail in the last 10 years. Before her, there was Nelson Abeyta, who was hired in May 2016 and was then abruptly replaced by an interim director, Paul Maestas, a prior operations lieutenant, in August 2018. Abeyta’s departure coincided with accusations that two jailers, Dominic Torrez and Phillip Ortiz, had been running a drug trafficking scheme to take orders for narcotics and deliver them to detainees. There was never any evidence made public that Abeyta had been involved, but the jailers were his employees.

In short, Garcia has a lot of work ahead of him, as does any jail director. As O’Donnell put it: “Jails are always troubled institutions.”

We believe the Taos County jail can — and must — do better. O’Donnell said Garcia has “really high credentials” and she is hopeful that he is the person to turn the jail around. So are we, and all of us will be watching to see whether or not that turns out to be the case.

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