Tales from Inside

Woman says fellow jail inmates smoked heroin for hours in county lockup, without consequences

Spending a night in jail on drunken driving charges might have been traumatizing enough, but a Santa Fe woman who was arrested in mid-November says she witnessed rampant and prolonged heroin use by other inmates during her stay in the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility, describing it as “a party atmosphere” that “freaked me out.”

The source, in her mid-40s and relatively new to Santa Fe, approached SFR with her story a week ago. She did not want to be identified for fear of jeopardizing her case, in which she plans to plead not guilty.

She also fears that she could suffer the repercussions of blowing the whistle on the entire heroin-using affair, which she discovered less than eight hours into lockup, following her arrest after leaving a bar in the Railyard early Saturday morning, Nov. 14.

Booked into jail at 5 am, the woman says jailers gave her a blanket and then put her in a holding cell. About 45 minutes later, jailers gave her a mattress and then showed her to the cell block. She says police told her she would likely only be locked up for a few hours. All told, however, she wouldn't leave for 38 hours.

Instead of crawling onto the top bunk and assuming the position, she ventured into the community area down below, and in her new jail-issued brown jumpsuit and sports bra to go with it, she sat at the tables there, staring into space.

It wasn't until the mid-afternoon, during her second lockdown with her cellmate, when the door shut once again, and she thought, Holy shit. I'm in jail.

And it was around that time when she says that her cellmate finally woke up after a night of what she could only assume was "partying" and started to unscrew the protector plate to an electrical outlet inside their cell block.

"I asked, 'What are you doing?'" the woman recounts. "And she says, 'I'm getting my stuff. I need my stuff.'"

The cellmate, the woman says, then took a lighter from her bra and tried to smoke what she claimed was heroin. But the lighter wasn't hot enough, so the cellmate, a Pojoaque woman who said she had been arrested for an outstanding warrant, next unscrewed a plate that covered a light bulb, using the heat from it to help her get high.

"I put the blanket up to my nose so I wouldn't have to breathe it in," says the woman. "And then she says, 'Sweet,' while she's smoking it, and all I could think is, I'm inside here, nobody knows where I am, and this woman is smoking away, and nobody was doing anything about it, and I wasn't about to rat her out."

In a pair of extensive one-on-one interviews, the woman says her cellmate and two other inmates smoked heroin into the day and night until her release later that Sunday evening—just after 10 pm.

Particularly disturbing to the woman is how the trio got their heroin, and at one point, the woman says a guard in charge of their 24-inmate pod finally discovered that something was going on, ordered everyone out of her cell and made a show of briefly searching the area.

"But she didn't see the yellow plastic straw that she'd been smoking from," says the woman. "I don't know what was going on, and what she was doing inside for five seconds, but it would have been hard to miss. It was sitting right there on the floor between the bunk bed and a little table."

Pablo Sedillo, Santa Fe County's director of public safety, in concert with the county spokeswoman, Kristine Mihelcic, tell SFR they are reviewing records and video to determine the veracity of the woman's accusations. Their first response to SFR was that the woman didn't have a cellmate, but the woman claims that the entire pod was at capacity and that everyone had a cellmate.

Mihelcic tells SFR later that the jail conducted a K-9 sweep of the pod after the newspaper asked about the woman's story, but guards didn't find drugs. Sedillo says he wonders why the woman didn't report the incident immediately after her release.

Although Sedillo states that drug use in jail is a national problem and that Santa Fe's facility is certainly no exception, he operates under a "zero-tolerance" policy, which is aided in part by a $175,000 body scanner that can detect foreign items inside the stomach or any conceivable cavity where drugs could be hidden.

"We take drug use very seriously here, but sometimes they win, and sometimes we win," says Sedillo. "It's a constant fight, a game of cat and mouse, but we try to stop it."

Sometimes the enemy lies within, just a few feet away and dressed in the same uniform. Just a few days after SFR's source served her time, a corrections officer, Brandon Valdez, 19, succeeded in smuggling in dozens of strips of Suboxone, marijuana and Xanax on Nov. 19. But he was discovered during a random drug search by jail guards, arrested and booked into the very jail he'd been working for. Valdez has since been fired and now awaits charges in court.

And yet another corrections officer, Esteban Lucero, 25, was arrested almost a month earlier, on Oct. 22, after a sheriff's report says he was acting suspiciously outside his vehicle in the jail parking lot before reporting to work. A search was conducted, and drug paraphernalia was discovered.

And even Sedillo, the guy in charge of public safety, has had a few accusations hurled his way in a past that includes a stint as a jail warden at the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, where a Samoan gang reportedly ran a drug-smuggling outfit. Sedillo declined to comment on the subject but insists that drug interception at the lockup continually makes headway.

Not only does the facility's body scanner catch plenty of drugs trying to be smuggled in, from meth to cocaine to heroin, but Lennox, the jail's K-9, has also been instrumental, along with an intelligence-gathering unit in the facility.

It's not heroin, however, that's the No. 1 contraband there. That honor goes to Suboxone, a prescription drug that's similar to methadone in reducing the heroin cravings and lessening the pain of withdrawal.

"Heroin has been a problem in this state for years," Sedillo says. "It's a legacy here. It's passed down from generation to generation, and there plenty of people out there who go to a doctor, say they're heroin addicts, and before you know it, they're getting Suboxone, and before you know it, they're giving it out to their brothers, their sisters, their cousins, their uncles, and they're singling out the people they can sell it to in here."

Suboxone is also essential to one approach that Santa Fe is taking to deal with the community drug problem. A year-and-a-half-old diversion program called LEAD relies heavily upon the medicine, and instead of arresting heroin users and throwing them in jail, offenders who qualify get access to substance-abuse treatment.

Just last week, a pair of city police officers who run LEAD asked the interim Corrections, Courts and Justice Committee to see if it could convince the Legislature to contribute $200,000 toward the cause, according to Capt. Jerome Sanchez, chief of criminal investigations, and Det. Casey Salazar.

Both have seen the abuse of Suboxone on the streets.

To the addicts, the drug might help alleviate the withdrawals, but to the virgin users, placing that strip of Suboxone on the tongue can be the next best, or worst, thing to trying heroin itself.

Salazar says it's not uncommon for the drug to be crushed and then injected into the bloodstream, while Sanchez, his counterpart, says the epidemic is an uphill struggle, and yet he adds, "I don't know a case where a heroin addict ever ran a red light and killed a family of four."

He, of course, was referring to drunken drivers, another epidemic in Northern New Mexico that rivals opiate addiction. Amid that backdrop is is SFR's source, who hails from back East, attended a private high school, graduated from college with a bachelor's degree and then relocated to Santa Fe just last year.

She even admits that she "grew up in a bubble," and she jokes about how the photograph that she took at the police station in Santa Fe could easily identify her, what with the red nail polish and the manicure, something not many of her fellow female inmates had.

And so while heroin users could still very well be smoking dope in the cell block, she is back in the real world, free for the moment but not without its consequences. She will eventually be arraigned on the charges and will have her day in court, and while she plans to plead not guilty, she also faces the very real possibility of doing 90 days in jail—even though it's only her first offense.

Now she feels that if she's discovered, she could end up with a stiff sentence as a consequences of whistleblowing on the very obvious: the heroin epidemic in Northern New Mexico and the domino effect inside the detention facility.

Sedillo says he feels sorry for her and can imagine that "the culture" on the inside "came as one big shock to her and had an impact on her."

But neither he nor Mihelcic conceed that what she witnessed actually took place.

"It all happened," says the woman, adamant in her accusations. "And it just doesn't seem right that nobody was doing anything about it."

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