By KAY MATTHEWS
Carmela DeVargas died on November 9, 2019, as a result of failure at the Santa Fe County Detention Center to afford her the necessary medical treatment to save her life. Today, February 25, 2021, her father, Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, representing her estate, filed suit in Rio Arriba District Court against the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners and its employees: Santa Fe Public Safety Director Pablo Sedillo; Santa Fe County Detention Center Warden Derek Williams; Medical Director Dr. Melequides Olivares; and Correctional Officers Lieutenant Rojas and Caption Rios.
As La Jicarita previously reported, Carmela was being held in the Santa Fe jail on an alleged probation violation and became ill due to the jail’s failure to treat her for Opioid Use Disorder that resulted in infections that rendered her quadriplegic and on life support (secondary sepsis and MRSA infections).
Carmela contracted these infections from either the filthy conditions at the Santa Fe County Detention Center or from a dirty needle she used to self-medicate while an inmate there. She languished at the jail for weeks without adequate medical attention, despite Medical Director Olivares’s knowledge of her Opioid Use Disorder and the risks of withdrawal and medical complications associated with it. Her condition became critical and she was transferred to Christus St. Vincent Hospital, where she was shackled, both arm and legs, while in the ICU, intubated and on life support. Officers Rios and Rojas refused the hospital’s request to remove the shackles for a full week until the county dismissed her criminal charges and she was transferred to UNM Hospital for a final evaluation. Always cognizant of her condition, she chose to terminate life support and ended her life.
The Santa Fe County Detention Center has a long history of incompetence and neglect of its inmates. As noted in the lawsuit, “in 2003 the United States Department of Justice found that the Center provided inadequate medical care in the areas of intake, screening, referral, acute care, chronic care, and medical administration and management; that there was an improper delay in responding to inmate requests for medical treatment that put them at risk for worsening illness; and that often the treatment provided was substandard. The Justice Department findings concluded: ‘As a result, inmates at the Detention Center with serious medical needs are at a risk for harm.’” The county paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by attorneys for inmates who were injured or died while in custody.
The Justice Department laid out requirements that the county needed to meet to avoid litigation, and in 2005 Annabelle Romero was hired as Corrections Director. Under her leadership, the county brought the jail into compliance and then entered into a settlement agreement in 2008. Romero continued to implement reforms to bring the detention center into compliance with national standards.
In 2011 Santa Fe County officials hired Defendant Pablo Sedillo in the newly created position of County Public Safety Director. Defendant Sedillo had previously been terminated from his job as a warden at an Arizona jail as a result of serious security problems at the facility, including a prison riot and allegations that a gang within the jail was smuggling drugs with the cooperation of the guards. According to the lawsuit, “Defendant Sedillo was well connected in the New Mexico Democratic Party.” Shortly after Sedillo’s hiring the county fired Romero; no reasons were given for her termination.
Conditions in the jail began to deteriorate once again under Sedillo’s watch. DeVargas’s lawsuit cites cases of other inmates who died because of improper and inadequate medical care that resulted in the county paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle wrongful death lawsuits. Like Carmela’s case, their deaths can be attributed to terrible conditions and/or illegal drug use in the jail. Correctional officers were charged with and implicated in the sale and/or use of unlawful drugs in the jail.
As opioid drug use escalated throughout the United States during these years, New Mexico especially suffered. According to a recent Legislative Finance Committee Report, between 1990 and 2018 the New Mexico death toll from substance abuse was over 38,000 and by 2018, death due to substance abuse accounted for 11 percent of all the deaths. Health experts called for Santa Fe County to provide opiate based treatment to opiate dependent inmates at the Santa Fe County Jail because that is the most effective treatment available and does not require inmates to have to go through the painful, sometimes fatal, process of withdrawal.
In 2017 the Bernalillo County Detention Center began implementing Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) that provides guidelines for the use of buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone for the treatment of persons suffering from Opioid Use Disorder. According to the lawsuit, “despite being advised by experts that MAT was the standard of care for inmates suffering from Opioid Use Disorder, Defendants refused to adopt and implement such a program. Rather, Defendants offered only occasional treatment with Naltrexone [a second line treatment far less effective than Suboxone or methadone].” The lawsuit documents the many experts and hearings that were held in Santa Fe County over deleterious conditions at the jail and the need for the County to implement the MAT program.
Attorneys Richard Rosenstock and Daniel Yohalem of Santa Fe filed the lawsuit in Rio Arriba District Court against Defendant County of Santa Fe under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act and brings federal law claims against all the defendants pursuant 42 U.S.C. §1983, the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). They are requesting a six person jury trial and asking for compensatory damages; punitive damages against Defendants Sedillo, Williams, Olivares, Rojas and Rios; pre- and post-judgment interest; and attorneys fees and costs.
If the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which was recently passed by the NM House of Representatives and awaits hearing by the Senate, were enacted, a case such as this could be heard in state court, rather than federal court, which as La Jicarita reported previously, would provide better accountability. The Act essentially revokes the defense of qualified immunity, which, because of the arduous process to prove that rights have been violated, has abrogated these rights for too many years. It does not, however, provide for punitive damages, and during its committee hearings several compromises limited liability to public entities, rather than individuals, and limited awarded damages to two million dollars.
Antonio DeVargas, who testified for passage of the NM Civil Rights Act, is, however, disappointed in the compromise that fails to identify individuals who are guilty of civil rights violations and who should be removed from the system. Under federal law, those individuals who were negligent in Carmela’s death can be held accountable through punitive damages, though it will be an uphill battle.
Rex Corcoran, Jr., also held at the Santa Fe County Detention Center on an alleged probation violation, died four days after Carmela of organ failure due to sepsis. His mother, Susie Schmitt, and Antonio DeVargas started a petition to impanel a citizens’ Grand Jury to investigate misfeasance, malfeasance, and other crimes that may have been committed at the Santa Fe County Detention Center. They estimate that several thousand signatures of Santa Fe County registered voters are required. You can go here to sign the petition.