Whether you’ve just been booked on new charges, are being held in custody pending trial, or are serving a sentence for a conviction, jail should be a reasonably safe place for you to be. Unfortunately, that’s often not been the case at many detention facilities throughout New Mexico and the country, and the Taos County jail is no exception.
Over the years, our newspaper has written many articles illustrating this problem at the local level. Multiple times each year, for the past several years, people in custody at the Taos County jail have suffered injuries or died, often due to drug overdoses or by suicide. And a string of three detainee deaths in less than a month this spring reminds us again that our local jail — and perhaps, too, the judicial system that it serves — is in need of greater reform to better ensure the safety of the people it houses.
This is easy — and, at this stage rather obvious — to point out. Meanwhile, the work ahead of our county officials to reform this institution is significant. Nevertheless, too many people have died in our county jail of preventable causes for this to not be a priority for our county manager and commission, who are ultimately responsible for what happens in this facility.
The historically-low wage paid to jail staff is one area where the county has made progress. In 2019, for example, uncertified entry-level guards were being hired at just $12.55 per hour. In 2020 (according to an existing job posting on taoscounty.org), the county increased pay for the same job to $16.43 per hour, and pay goes up from there to $17.75 per hour if a jailer obtains a certification, which is provided through the New Mexico Corrections Academy. (The county also announced on Wednesday (May 17) that it will be offering up to $3,000 as a recruitment incentive for new hires and the same amount as a bonus to current employees.)
The corrections certification ensures jail employees enter detention facilities better prepared for the unusual ways in which people in this difficult profession are tested mentally and physically. While new recruits at the Taos County jail receive training once hired, all jail guards should receive this certification as a rule before their first day on the job, and training should particularly focus on how to respond to the types of behavioral health emergencies that most-commonly results in detainee deaths: Drug or alcohol intoxication and suicidal ideations.
Of the record 1,200 people who died in local jails in the U.S. in 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death, followed closely by drug and alcohol intoxication, which, at the time, was set to outpace suicide as the leading cause of death among people in custody, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Beyond training staff to ensure they know how to respond when these emergencies occur in the Taos County jail, the 8th Judicial District should continue to seek ways to divert defendants not accused of serious violent crimes toward behavioral health services that can help treat the root cause of what often lands them in the custody of law enforcement in the first place.
On this front, we’ve been encouraged by the proactive steps taken by Colfax and Union County Court Judge Melissa Kennelly, who organized meetings with attorneys across the district last year to discuss how cases could be resolved more efficiently to meet new deadlines set by the New Mexico Supreme Court. One solution, she said, was to “see more programs diverting certain types of offenders to community support resources outside of the criminal justice system from the outset.”
Of course, it would be naive to think that these programs can serve everyone, however. Jail, after all, is meant to isolate those individuals who pose a serious danger to the community or who are likely to flee from justice. But this recent series of deaths again illustrates that reform of our detention center needs to take into greater account the ways in which detainees confined to a jail cell can also pose a danger to themselves.
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