Back-to-back suicides raise questions about care, staffing in NM prisons
Prisons are so understaffed, said an anonymous CO, that inmates have been recruited to help monitor other prisoners on suicide watch
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
VALENCIA COUNTY, N.M. — Family members of two men who hanged themselves within 24 hours of each other at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility last month say their loved ones wouldn't have died if the state prison near Los Lunas was properly run.
It's an allegation state Corrections Department officials deny, but prisoner advocates contend the deaths point to a problem that is chronic throughout New Mexico's prison system: inadequate staffing, both in terms of medical care and day-to-day life within the prison.
State officials counter that while staffing levels are lower than they would prefer, reduced population counts at the prison balance the equation.
Either way, the inmates' deaths, coming so close together in the same facility, were shocking.
Hector Cuevas, 30, of Farmington was found hanging in his cell the evening of June 13 and pronounced dead.
Jonathan Cisneros, 37, of Silver City was discovered hanging in his cell the next morning and was taken to University of New Mexico Hospital, where he was declared brain dead before family members granted permission to remove him from life-support a few days later. He died June 15.
Cisneros' mother said he previously had been incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility near Las Cruces and had tried to kill himself there. He'd only recently been transferred to Los Lunas after being hospitalized in Albuquerque.
Both men had attempted suicide during their time in the system, but according to the Corrections Department, neither was on suicide watch at the time of his death.
According to Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison, both deaths are under investigation.
It's often reported the suicide rate among incarcerated people is far higher than the general population, though that statistic seems to apply more to county jails than state prisons. But an April 2021 Bureau of Justice report said the number of prisoners who died by suicide in the nation's state prisons had increased 20 percent between 2017 and 2018.
Available statistics show New Mexico's suicide rate is higher than the rest of the country, both in and out of prison.
State prisons saw four inmates die by suicide in 2018, none in 2019 and three in 2020. There are 11 state prisons with a combined population that hovers around 6,000, according to data provided by the Corrections Department.
Suicide is a troubling subject in New Mexico. The state as a whole ranked fourth in the nation in 2019 for suicide deaths among its general population, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, with a rate of just over 24 deaths per 100,000 people — considerably higher than the national average of about 13.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
Prorated for the overall state prison population, the deaths by suicide in 2018 and 2020 are more than double the suicide rate among the state's general population.
Staffing shortages blamed
Civil rights attorney Matt Coyte, who has represented state inmates in lawsuits against the Corrections Department, private prison operators and outside vendors, said inmates and staff at the Central New Mexico facility told him the prison's high vacancy rates among corrections officers and medical staff contributed to the men's deaths.
"They say there is not enough staff for mental health or nursing to visit with people and not enough people to do checks on people in solitary confinement," Coyte said in a phone interview. "When an individual is left alone for long period of time ... they know when they can do it successfully, which is the most likely reasons you have these clusters of suicides taking place."
According to court records and media reports from the time, Central experienced two suicides within a 24-hour period in December 2018.
According to Harrison, the medical staff vacancy rate at Central — which serves as the state prison system's intake center and also houses a mental health treatment center and long-term care and geriatric units — is 18 percent. The corrections staff vacancy rate there is 27 percent. He added those rates are based on the facility's full capacity of 1,221 beds. At present, he said, only 587 inmates are housed there.
"Based upon the low inmate population at Central, we do not believe that staffing levels are in any way correlated with either of these suicides," Harrison said in an email.
"Individuals in our custody who need medical attention receive it whether that be by our medical staff onsite or by medical staff at local hospitals," Harrison wrote. "Mental health professionals are onsite at every one of our facilities, and any individual in our custody that displays indicators of self-harm is evaluated and properly monitored by our mental health staff."
Employees tell a different story
Several corrections officers contacted The New Mexican following the deaths of Cuevas and Cisneros last month and said regardless of what the numbers show, employees at Central New Mexico are overloaded with work, and short staffing means less supervision of inmates.
"Staffing is a major issue," said Jeffery Cluck a former CO who said he worked at the prison for about a year before resigning for personal reasons in April.
Cluck said in a recent interview he and others who worked at the prison knew with staff spread so thin, it was only a matter of time before something bad happened at the facility.
"We knew this was coming. I hate to even say this, but it's just a matter of time before that place goes into a riot mode, hostage mode or another PNM mode," he said, referring to the deadly 1980 prison riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico outside Santa Fe, in which nearly three dozen inmates were killed.
Cluck — who retired after 22 years in the Marine Corps and served 17 years in the California Department of Corrections before coming to work in New Mexico in 2019 — said short staffing resulted in scenarios in which one corrections officer was responsible for supervising three or four units, which can mean 150 inmates or more.
"There have been times when the tower wasn't manned, the front gate wasn't manned at night," he said. "There is another control center, B-Control, which regulates who goes in and out, where at times they had a broomstick propping the door open."
Another CO — who said he'd worked at the Los Lunas prison for more than a decade and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job — said the staffing shortage puts unbearable pressure on employees.
"We are so short-staffed it's crazy," he said. "We are the ones that are suicidal going to work every day knowing how bad it is. The officers are suicidal because they know what's going on."
The CO said inmates have been recruited to help watch other prisoners who are on suicide watch.
Through Harrison, Corrections Department Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero declined to be interviewed for this story.
The department's website lists Robin Bourne as the warden at Central, but Harrison said in a text message Tim Hatch is the warden.
Harrison did not respond to questions about the reason for Bourne's departure.
Bourne did not respond to messages left seeking comment.
A good start, a dark end
Hector Cuevas was born in Farmington in 1990, one of seven children.
His father said he was a good-hearted and hardworking man who'd followed his father's footsteps after high school and became a tree-cutter and landscaper.
Hector Teran said Cuevas married his high school sweetheart at 20 and the couple had three children. Cuevas loved fishing and cooking outside and bought his own boat.
"They had everything," Teran said. "They had it made."
But Teran said things crumbled when the couple began using methamphetamine and they began to fight. Court records show Cuevas had one DWI and speeding ticket before 2017, when he was charged with battery on both his brother and his wife.
Teran said his son never attempted suicide before being arrested in 2017 and later incarcerated in the Lea County Detention Center awaiting trial on 20 counts of aggravated battery on a household member.
His father said Cuevas tried to kill himself about five times before he was sent to Los Lunas, once slitting his throat and using his blood to write on the wall that anything that happened to him was the fault of a particular guard at the Lea County jail.
Cuevas spent about four years going back and forth between the jail and the state mental hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., before he pleaded guilty in May to 10 of the charges against him as part of a plea agreement that called for him to spend about nine years in prison, according to court records.
"The prison told me he hung himself with the sheets, which he wasn't supposed to have access to," Teran said in a recent phone interview. "He was a suicider. They were supposed to keep all that away from him."
He won the battle, but lost the war
Jonathan Cisneros' early life was not easy; he was diagnosed with leukemia as a boy and had to undergo chemotherapy for several years, according to his mother, Tina Tow, a Department of Health dietician.
"He was kinda picked on cause he'd gone bald and stuff from the chemo," Tow said. "So he became a little bit of an outcast."
Cisneros excelled in sports but had to give up running track after doctors said his bones were too weak from his cancer treatments to continue the sport, his mother said.
His behavioral problems — diagnosed early on as attention deficit disorder — intensified as he became a teenager, his mother said, and he began to use drugs and alcohol and have run-ins with authorities.
Court records show he had a criminal history dating to 2006, including numerous convictions for drug and property crimes. He had only one violent charge and conviction — battery on a health care worker — for punching a nurse who was trying to get him to stay in a hospital bed in May 2018.
Court records show he committed several crimes that fall and pleaded guilty in early 2019 to nine charges — including aggravated fleeing of a law enforcement officer, driving with a revoked license, nonresidential burglary, larceny, conspiracy to commit larceny and criminal damage to property.
Most of the charges were related to events that appear to have taken place over a span of a few weeks in late 2018.
He was sentenced to eight years in state prison under the terms of his plea agreement.
Cisneros' childhood friend Elaine Courtney — who said she met Cisneros at Ronald McDonald House Charities when he was a 9-year-old undergoing treatment for leukemia — said she spoke to Cisneros regularly on the phone and he'd told her he had been having seizures for more than a year. He said he could not convince prison officials to bring him to a specialist and was suffering so badly he just could not go on.
"He was at his breaking point five months ago," she said. "They knew he was suicidal, and they knew why."
Cisneros' mother said her son didn't tell her about his seizures at first because he didn't want to worry her. When he eventually revealed the problem, she said she pressed him to find out what was causing them.
"I said I want you to get a [diagnosis]," she said. "They need to test you to see why you are having these seizures. They were doing all these in-camera doctors' visits without him really seeing someone."
Cisneros had been incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility near Las Cruces but was flown to Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque about a week before his death after experiencing a massive seizure that required him to be placed on a respirator. He was discharged to the Los Lunas facility on a Saturday, and he was found hanging in his cell two days later.
Wendelyn Pekich, a spokeswoman for Wexford Health Sources Inc., the private contractor that provides medical care at the prison, wrote in an email the company is working with the Corrections Department "to determine the exact circumstances" surrounding the men's deaths.
Courtney said her friend filed grievances or complaints but feared retaliation, such as the revocation of privileges.
"He would say, 'They can do stuff to me,' " she said. "He was really worried about that."
Courtney said she had made calls to the warden to try to get help for Cisneros, to no avail.
"I feel like these people know that you can't really enforce your constitutional rights unless you can afford to pay an attorney to go to court and fight for you ... but it's really hard to pay for an attorney that costs $275 per hour," she said.
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