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New Mexico House District 33 Rep. Micaela Cadena, once the director of recidivism reduction at the New Mexico Department of Corrections, said correctional facilities statewide struggle to ensure the safety of their detainees or inmates, but that three deaths in a month — even in a state prison — is considered high.

The Taos County Detention Center has seen three detainee deaths in the past month, but according to District 33 State Rep. Micaela Cadena, the jail might be facing many of the same problems found in correctional facilities statewide.

Cadena, who has a background in criminal-legal reform and was the director of recidivism reduction at the New Mexico Department of Corrections, worked alongside State Rep. Barron Jones to formulate legislation to “bring oversight to the New Mexico Corrections Department.” This oversight, she said, would focus on the well-being, not just of inmates, but also of correctional officers.

According to Cadena, many correctional facilities in New Mexico face problems with staffing and medical providership, which impacts the staff they do have. Correctional facilities demand a 24-hour staff presence; however, there are many difficulties surrounding staff retention and recruitment.

“It’s been a profession that we’ve offered neither the pay nor the respect that it garners,” Cadena said. “And when you don’t have the staffing you need, that means the staff you do have holds an even greater weight because they’re working longer than they should. Sometimes that’s a double-edged sword because, when you’re not paying well enough when someone’s working overtime, it becomes more liveable, but you’re taking away from their quality of life.”

In some facilities in New Mexico, she continued, correctional officers do “mandatory overtime” to retain their employment status. It’s no secret that being overworked can lead to exhaustion, and that’s exactly what happens with correctional officers.

“Inmates have been trying to communicate for a long time about what’s happening inside these facilities,” Cadena said, “but more than ever, the people working in these facilities are really just trying to find folks that will listen and resource these facilities so that they can do their jobs better, so that they can go home to their loved ones at night, but also so they’re not turning a corner and finding someone deceased.”

Not only do detention center workers have to endure long shifts, but the job carries with it a challenging psychological aspect; jails and prisons can be violent places, and trauma is commonplace among workers — especially when they encounter deceased inmates or detainees, Cadena added.

“I’d say the majority of New Mexicans working in these facilities show up every day with integrity,” Cadena said. “They want to do their jobs well, and when there’s not enough staff and not enough resources, not enough medical providers, it can be an impossible task.”

However, Cadena’s legislation would only affect state prisons, not county jails like the Taos County Detention Center. While jails and prisons are oftentimes lumped together, a prison receives sentenced convicts who are there for a fixed amount of time, whereas jails are an umbrella under which one might find anything from sentenced convicts to suspects in pretrial detention to people fulfilling DUI jail time and a smattering of detainees in the midst of investigation.

All of these individuals are under one roof alongside the overworked correctional officers, who not only must navigate their day-in and day-out procedures, but also the comprehensive, complex machine that is a detention center.

Being a facility that houses human beings implies a great burden of care to fulfill basic necessities, including medical and behavioral health needs. Each time a detainee is booked, they must undergo questionnaires that cover the individual’s medical outlook. While that process might seem straight-forward, it’s often complex.

“You’re catching people potentially on the worst day of their lives,” Cadena said about new detainees. “There’s high emotions, there’s high shock, and there are other things that might just be happening that don’t become revealed until all of a sudden, you’re locked up.”

When booked, self-diagnosis can be made difficult because of stress and adrenaline. Other times, detainees might not want to be honest with officers, and many individuals will realize medical conditions during the booking phase they didn’t know they had previously. For example, Cadena noted, several women have found out they’re pregnant after being tested and screened in the booking phase.

“All [correctional officers] can work with is what the person decides to disclose,” Cadena said. “You could know you have all sorts of medical conditions, and if you decide that day you’re not in the mood to share, they don't know any better for it. They can only care for the inmate as much as the inmate has decided to share with them about their needs.”

Another problem correctional facilities face are detainees or inmates who have been substance users. Being imprisoned implies going cold turkey, but contraband is not impossible to obtain in jail or prison, although it often takes another form. Opioids like Suboxone strips, Cadena said, are easy to smuggle but do not react the same way as street opioids when consumed, although inmates might consume them in the same way, commonly leading to an overdose. In 2018, an investigation alleged the existence of a narcotics trafficking ring in the Taos County Detention Center, leading to the arrest of two guards and the suspension of several other employees, and several detainee deaths in recent years have been attributed to drug overdoses.

Ezekiel Martinez, Melquiades Rael and Luis Elicio Otero were the three most recent detainee deaths. Otero, the most recent death, was found hanging in the booking area of the Taos County Detention Center in the mid-afternoon on May 14.

According to Cadena, three detainee deaths within a month would be high — even for a state penitentiary.

“It’s always been our sense that much of what happens in these facilities happens under a shroud of secrecy and darkness,” Cadena said, “and while once in a while, there are legitimate concerns — like things need to be kept more confidential because of security risks or somebody trying to make an escape route or smuggle contraband in — those concerns are pretty limited and could be addressed in other ways to bring transparency to these systems that really, really need it.”

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