Jailers accused of trafficking drugs into adult detention center

Allegations revive discussion about addiction in correctional facilities

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 7/5/18

The recent arrests of two jailers accused of trafficking drugs into the Taos County Adult Detention Center suggests that the county jail might be another place where an addict can’t get …

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Jailers accused of trafficking drugs into adult detention center

Allegations revive discussion about addiction in correctional facilities

Posted

The recent arrests of two jailers accused of trafficking drugs into the Taos County Adult Detention Center suggest that the county jail might be another place where an addict can’t get clean.

On Tuesday (June 26), the Taos County Sheriff’s Office arrested officers Dominic Torrez, 23, and Phillip Ortiz, 52, charging them with several felonies, including trafficking a controlled substance, bringing contraband into the county jail and conspiracy.

Torrez and Ortiz were arraigned on Thursday (June 28), but were not booked at the jail and are not currently in custody, according to Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe. Other details surrounding their conditions of release had not been posted to court records as of press time Wednesday (July 4). A case file has not been publicly generated for either case.

The arrests are the result of a sheriff’s office investigation conducted with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which approved the affidavits for arrest warrants for the two jailers last week. At Hogrefe’s request, the affidavits have been temporarily sealed by the Taos County court system, meaning that important details surrounding the circumstances of the alleged crimes are currently being withheld from the public.

“Asking for documents to be temporarily sealed is a practice I am in favor of so as to protect witnesses and the integrity of our case until the initial court [proceeding] can occur, for the same reason neither Ortiz or Torrez were booked into the Taos jail,” Hogrefe said.

But excluding so much detail about arrests isn’t common for the sheriff’s office; Hogrefe’s deputies have arrested several other individuals so far this year on similar drug-related crimes and provided extensive detail about the arrests in initial press materials. Asked to elaborate as to why last week’s arrests were treated differently, Hogrefe said he had asked that affidavits be sealed by the courts in the past.

Torrez, who is from Petaca, New Mexico, had worked at the jail for only about four months, while Ortiz, hired in August of 2011, had worked at the detention center for nearly seven years, according to Nelson Abeyta, the jail’s director since May 2016.

Abeyta said this week that he maintains a “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to contraband in the jail, but some detainees have overdosed at the county facility on smuggled narcotics.

He has acknowledged in the past that keeping drugs out of the jail is a challenge he is constantly working to combat. 

While The Taos News submitted a request to the county this week for data on the total number of overdoses recorded at the jail so far this year and over the past five years, the paper’s archives indicate that on July 28, 2016, for example, two detainees overdosed within hours of one another.  

That morning, jailers found 29-year-old Jonathan Bourg dead of an overdose in his cell. Melesio Martinez, 28, later suffered an overdose from snorting heroin, but survived. During a shakedown later in the day, jailers found a small ball of heroin on another detainee, Chris Hoffman, who was charged with possession of a controlled substance.

It’s a problem that isn’t unique to Taos County; drug-related crimes are some of the most common an inmate or detainee can add to their rap sheet once inside a county jail or state prison.

For the public, the allegations that the jailers were allegedly involved in that illicit trade didn’t come as a surprise.

“Been happening for years,” Zack Taylor Wright, Río Arriba County Deputy Sheriff, commented on The Taos News Facebook page.

According to the newspaper’s archives, the last recorded instance was in April 2013, when Joseph R. Salazar was caught smuggling heroin inside bars of soap into the jail. Salazar pleaded guilty to bringing contraband into the jail and conspiracy, charges that Torrez and Ortiz are now facing five years later.

“This goes on all over the country,” MaryAnn Arellano, a Taos High School graduate, also commented on last week’s story. “Most don’t get caught.”

Where detention centers do tend to differ, however, is in the treatment they are prepared to offer to an addict once incarcerated, and how far they are willing to go to help addicts get into long-term treatment, a resource that is extremely difficult to access in Taos County.

The Taos County Adult Detention Center has taken some steps toward addressing the problem.

In the first quarter of 2017, Taos County contracted with Correctional Health Partners, a Denver-based organization, with the intention to improve monitoring and treatment of detainees detoxing from alcohol abuse or withdrawing from heavy drug use.

In practice, the jail’s procedure under the provider dictates that detainees suffering from addiction are closely monitored by jail medical staff, who will provide mild painkillers, like Benadryl, and fluids to keep an addict hydrated. Once an addict is through the worst of it, they then typically rejoin the rest of the jail population.

For addicts who may be dealing with simultaneous – and often correlated – mental health issues, the Taos County Adult Detention Center also provides monthly phone calls that connect a psychiatrist with detainees who are most in need of help.

They are steps that show a growing acknowledgment of addiction and mental health as major issues within the walls of the county jail.

Other correctional facilities throughout New Mexico and the country, however, have gone further.

Some have begun to adopt the philosophy that addiction is best treated as a disease, as per the definition provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than a temporary illness that can be cured within a few days in a holding cell.

“There needs to be more education about the disease of addiction, and more medically assisted treatment available to those who are incarcerated, along with good peer support, in my opinion,” said Kathy Sutherland-Brau, director of Inside Out Recovery, a peer support organization that offers weekly outreach at the Taos County jail. “The jail is a societal band-aid for addicts and mentally ill individuals in most cases due to lack of easily accessible treatment without wait times.”

Opioid-replacement therapy medications, such as Suboxone, a mild opiate that helps addicts deal with withdrawal, are offered at Santa Fe County Detention Center and Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County. Other facilities throughout the country continue to offer methadone, an older medication also used to wean addicts off heroin, but which has been criticized for the harsh withdrawal it can cause.

But even at jails and prisons that offer such medications, a question remains as to whether they have any mitigating effect on contraband smuggled into correctional facilities.

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