Rex Corcoran, Jr., died at Christus St. Vincent Hospital on November 19, 2019 after being transferred there from the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility. His estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit on November 5, 2021 against the Board of Santa Fe County Commission and numerous employees of the Detention Facility claiming his death was due to their negligence and mistreatment.
This complaint comes months after the estate of Carmela DeVargas filed a similar lawsuit, which La Jicarita has previously covered. Rex and Carmela died within days of each other after being held at the jail. Both their families have been working together to bring to account those responsible for their deaths and to prevent future deaths at the jail by bringing to light the deplorable conditions there. Susie Schmitt, mother of Rex, and Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, father of Carmela, have also submitted a petition of over 3000 signatures to the Santa Fe County Manager calling for the First Judicial District Court to impanel a grand jury “to investigate acts of malfeasance, misfeasance, and any other illegal act committed by any individuals associated with or employed by the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility and the County of Santa Fe.” (That petition has been accepted and a jury will be impaneled.)
Both Carmela and Rex were being held at the Detention Facility for alleged parole violations. Both had substance abuse issues and were receiving private treatment that the jail failed to adequately support. Rex was receiving Methadone from New Mexico Treatment Services and also suffered from Hepatitis C. Both these conditions were documented at his intake but he was cleared for “General Population,” not “Medical Housing.” He suffered severe withdrawal and infections and died two weeks after being admitted to the jail. The Magistrate Court of Santa Fe had remanded him to the Detention Facility for seven days for failure to pay certain fees.
The complaint documents the many stymied efforts of Susie, Rex’s mother, to get in touch with her son after he was taken into custody. When they spoke by phone on November 6 she assured him that she would be there to pick him up on November 12, the day he was to be released from his seven-day court mandated stay. He already sounded fearful and hung up abruptly. Despite repeated attempts to speak with her son or check on his well being, she was never notified of his deteriorating condition and told, when finally able to speak on the phone with an officer, that he was “fine.” The next—and last—time she saw him was in the hospital ICU on life support.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, the authors have this to say about the concept of parole: “Parole has a complicated history in this country, one that helps explain how we got into the crisis of mass incarceration and maybe how we might find a way out.” They go on to say that when it began in the U.S. in the 19th century it was envisioned as a rehabilitation tool but has now, through fear tactics, has become one of the “pillars” of mass incarceration. In the case of Rex and Carmela, alleged parole violations became a death sentence.
Numerous parties employed at the Detention Facility are named in the lawsuit (filed by the law firm of Rosthstein Donatelli): the Warden, Derek Williams; seven officers ranking from lieutenant to corporal; the supervising doctor, Melquiades Olivares; and several nurses. Unfortunately, neither this lawsuit, nor the DeVargas complaint, fall under the New Mexico Civil Rights Act because they occurred prior to its enactment on July 1, 2021. The Act permits “an individual to bring a claim against a public body or person acting on behalf of or under the authority of a public body for a violation of the individual’s rights, privileges, or immunities,” or essentially, revoke 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. As reported in La Jicarita, , the judge in the DeVargas complaint will allow only the charges against the county and one charge against Dr. Melquiades Olivares to go forward to trial. The other defendants were dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity.
Last Saturday, November 6, family and friends gathered at the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center to mark the second anniversary of the deaths of Rex and Carmela. The groups also included family members of men who had died at the Rio Arriba Detention Center. Officially relegated to a dirt parking lot adjacent to the jail, participants decided to march down the road to the building with their signs and chants of “Say her name” and “Say his name!”
Thanks to Beth Wald (http://bethwald.com/) for the use of her photographs of the march. All photographs by Beth except otherwise noted.