Low pay may fuel drug dealing by guards at Taos County jail

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 4/11/19

Andrew Montoya, a lieutenant at the Taos County jail, learned a long time ago that corrections work requires officers to maintain a high level of integrity, while also placing them within reach of …

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Low pay may fuel drug dealing by guards at Taos County jail

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Andrew Montoya, a lieutenant at the Taos County jail, learned a long time ago that corrections work requires officers to maintain a high level of integrity, while also placing them within reach of tempting ways to let it slip.

Investigations launched by Taos County and the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in 2018 suggest that at least two officers succumbed to one of the more lucrative temptations available last year: drug trafficking.

In June 2018, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office arrested jailers Dominic Torrez and Phillip Ortiz, charging them with transporting large quantities of drugs, including heroin, to detainees.

During a shakedown at the facility two weeks after the arrests, deputies continued to confiscate drugs inside the facility, leading the county to suspend several employees, including Nelson Abeyta, the jail’s director since 2016.

As investigations into alleged corruption at the jail continue into 2019, Montoya and other leadership staff are considering how they can rebuild their ranks with officers they can trust to perform a difficult job for a wage comparable to many less onerous professions.

“It’s harder now than it ever has been,” Montoya said this month while giving a tour of the jail on Albright Street. “We go through our waves, where sometimes we have a whole lot of really, really good applicants. Other times, we don’t have any applicants. It’s always been a hard position to fill just because the pay is really low.”

As of early April, the jail listed seven open positions for entry-level officers who will earn a starting wage of $12.55 an hour. By comparison, Río Arriba County Adult Detention Center pays a starting wage of $13.56 an hour. Statewide, correctional officers make a average wage of $17.43 an hour, and the national average wage is $23.70 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many public safety positions, a jailer’s day is often filled with bleak content, but the confined environment at the jail, as compared to that of a police patrol officer, for example, can be uniquely oppressive.

Taos County jailers spend most of their work hours in long corridors of polished concrete, where they manage as many as 86 lives all caught in varying states of crisis.

Some detainees suffer from drug addiction, mental illness or violent tendencies. Some are only charged with crimes, while others have been convicted of their charges and are awaiting sentencing.

Fights can break out, and the officers are sometimes the targets.

In October 2017, for example, two male detainees were accused of assaulting a female jailer with broom handles they had stolen from a utility closet.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, suicide is also commonplace in local jails. In July 2016, a male detainee at the Taos County facility hanged himself to death with a bedsheet. In October 2017, a male detainee at the detention center also attempted to hang himself, but survived.

Many others over the years have overdosed, some fatally. According to statistics provided by Abeyta in 2018, at least one detainee overdosed last year; two detainees overdosed in 2017; two also overdosed on heroin in 2016, one fatally.

The family of the deceased detainee, Jonathan Bourg, filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the Taos County Board of Commissioners for allegedly allowing dangerous drugs into the jail. The family’s attorney, Daniel Yohalem, said the parties are now looking to settle the suit out of court.

Officers who sign on at the jail are required to be on the front line for these types of incidents.

After more than a decade in corrections, Montoya believes the wage they’re paid is too low in light of the work the job requires, so when Ortiz and Torrez were charged with dealing drugs last year, he condemned the act, but he also understood the allure it held for them.

“Some people wonder what their integrity is really worth,” Montoya said. “Is it really worth not being able to pay my mortgage? Or not being able to put food on my kid’s table? And then there are some people who are just greedy.”

Smuggled in the pages of a book or with a letter, drugs are a common form of contraband in most correctional facilities, but there are those who have developed strategies to manage it better than others.

Taos County hopes it’s jail can soon do the same.

Montoya said officers are warned from the outset that detainees are always on the lookout for someone who can be convinced to take part in smuggling contraband into the jail.

It was also a handful of detainees who blew the whistle last year.

According to court records, one of them described Ortiz as the “big fish” of the illicit operation, the one known to drive a brand-new Toyota Tundra and who had a tattoo of a spider web known to be associated with a local gang.

Records indicate Ortiz would store drugs in the jail’s utility room and would later dole them out to detainees who submitted orders for their drug of choice. Ortiz would allegedly deliver the drugs on food trays at dinner time or in slop buckets at other times during his shift.

Torrez was identified as the “little fish.”

In October, the Taos District Attorney’s Office announced the charges against the two would be dismissed as drug cases filed against detainees likely to testify against them are first processed.

The DA also saw a conflict in prosecuting both sets of cases, and chose to transfer the jailer cases to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.

“The New Mexico Office of the Attorney General is engaged in an ongoing investigation in regard to this matter,” said David Carl, director of communications for Attorney General Hector Balderas. “We are committed to uncovering any source of illicit drugs in our state facilities. The OAG intends to investigate fully and will update the public when we are able.”

But while prosecuting those cases should help illuminate the problem and serve to caution other officers, drugs continue to find their way into the Taos County jail.

As of April 8, Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo reported that 18 detainees had been charged with possessing contraband so far this year, but didn’t specify how many were drug related.

Asked for comment on Taos County’s internal investigation, Jaramillo said he has “concerns within the detention center,” but said he could not comment on the ongoing investigation, including the status of employees who were suspended in 2018.

Jaramillo said he is working with jail staff and is seeking outside help to improve the jail’s operations.

“My plan going forward is to bring in a consultant that will assess the day-to-day operations of the facility and the safety and security of the facility,” he said. “In addition, Taos County’s legal counsel has reviewed the current policy and identified areas of deficiencies. Legal counsel will be providing their recommendations to the county in the next several weeks.”

The county will soon post a job listing for a permanent director. The county may also be allocating funds to the jail to purchase additional equipment that could help reduce the amount of contraband at the jail.

He agrees with Montoya that a greater challenge may be finding the right people to staff the facility.

“During the last several months, Taos County’s Adult Detention Facility has been experiencing challenges with the overall recruitment of detention officers that unfortunately has shed light on many of the issues that clearly identify the need for additional training,” he said. “Taos County continues to proactively seek qualified candidates with experience in the field of criminal justice and will be soliciting for training opportunities with our local resources.”

In the meantime, Montoya continues to work with the jail’s interim director, Paul Maestas, to do what they can from inside.

They continue to talk with officers about integrity, but that may not be enough to keep the temptations at bay.

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