Parents of deceased N.M. jail inmates protest for improvements

The pair has pushed for improvements to inmate conditions and medical care for nearly three years

By Nathan Lederman
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — As they sat across the street from Santa Fe County's John Gaw Meem Historic Building on Tuesday afternoon, Susie Schmitt and Antonio DeVargas recalled the last time they were in downtown Santa Fe.

It was in March 2021, for a visit with the county manager about the deaths of their children while in the custody of the county jail.

The November 2019 deaths of Schmitt's son, Rex Corcoran Jr., and DeVargas' daughter, Carmela DeVargas — both 34 when they died — also drew the grieving parents to the county building Tuesday.

The pair, who have pushed for improvements to inmate conditions and medical care for nearly three years, were moved to demonstrate again outside the County Commission chambers following recent news that six people had died in the facility between September 2021 and September 2022 — with the three most recent deaths occurring in the span of about a month.

"They're not there to be tortured," Antonio DeVargas told commissioners during their public meeting. "Many of them are even just waiting for a court hearing. They don't deserve to die. ... You guys have no control over your jail, and there's torture going on in there, and it's outrageous."

The families of Corcoran and Carmela DeVargas filed wrongful death lawsuits against the County Commission, jail officials and jail staff alleging inadequate medical care and poor treatment for those with substance abuse disorders. The civil cases have both been settled.

DeVargas' attorney, Richard Rosenstock, said the family agreed to a $787,500 settlement with the county — one of the largest settlements in the county's history.

Still, Schmitt and DeVargas said they are not done fighting for better conditions at the jail.

"If we could save one life by making changes, then our children didn't die in vain," Schmitt said. "That's all we want. It was never about the money."

Her attorney, Carey Bhalla, said she could not disclose the terms of her client's settlement deal because it has not been finalized.

Schmitt, DeVargas and a handful of supporters gathered in front of the downtown building about an hour before the commission meeting with signs and posters demanding justice for their kids — and better treatment of all county inmates.

Carmela DeVargas, a mother of two, had been held in the jail for two months on a probation violation when she died in an Albuquerque hospital from sepsis related to an infection of her spinal cord and brain stem — the effects of meningitis.

Her family's lawsuit said her infection went untreated until it was irreversible, in part because she was a drug addict and jail guards didn't take her pleas for medical care seriously. Instead, the suit said, they taunted her.

Even after she was taken to the hospital and lost the ability to breathe, speak or walk, the family said in the complaint, county jail officials kept her shackled.

Both families have argued Carmela DeVargas and Corcoran would not have died if they had been allowed access to opioid addiction medications they'd been taking before being jailed — Suboxone for DeVargas and methadone for Corcoran. Without those medications, they were forced to go through withdrawal.

Schmitt addressed inmates' lack of access to medication-assisted treatment during her comments to the commission Tuesday.

"You oversee the jail," she said. "You are the ones that can make the changes. What is it going to take? More deaths? Or me coming [to commission meetings] every other Tuesday? Because I will continue.

"You really need to look into the people that you hire to run your jail because it's your jail, and things need to change," she added.

County spokeswoman Sara Smith wrote in an email Tuesday the jail has a variety of protocols in place to treat inmates with opioid withdrawal, such as offering palliative medications — Phenergan for nausea and vomiting, Imodium for diarrhea, Robaxin for muscle cramps, Dicylomine for stomach cramps and Visteril for itching.

She confirmed medication-assisted treatment is only available to certain inmates. Suboxone is approved for inmates with a current prescription at the time they are booked into the jail — and do not test positive for illegal drugs — as well as pregnant inmates, she added.

Commissioners Henry Roybal and Rudy Garcia spoke personally with Schmitt and Antonio DeVargas as the pair demonstrated outside before the meeting.

Schmitt told them through tears, "I didn't get to say goodbye to my son; I didn't get to tell him I loved him. I had to pull the plug on him. How do you think I felt?"

Garcia and Roybal said they would like to look more closely into the jail.

"As a policymaker, speaking for myself, I'm definitely interested in what's going on at the jail, and especially deaths that have happened [in] the last two to three months," said Garcia, whose term ends in December. "It concerns me a lot."

He said he plans to direct County Manager Greg Shaffer to have jail Warden Derek Williams give a presentation to the commission on the process for evaluating inmates as they are booked.

Roybal said he would like a review of nearby prisons and jails to see what works and what doesn't in evaluating an inmate's medical condition.

"If we look at the amount of deaths in different facilities as compared to ours, we need to figure out which one actually has the least of those fatalities, and see if it is something we're doing wrong and we need to change that policy," Roybal said. "It's very sad and unfortunate for us to get this kind of news."

Commissioner Hank Hughes also said he is concerned about deaths at the county jail.

"I know that we take people in who are already probably in very poor health and I know that people at the jail do care and spend a lot of time trying to keep people alive," Hughes said.

"However, I think we can probably do better," he said. "And so, I would really like the warden and the county manager to bring us some options for what we could do to make things safer for the people in jail."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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