The deaths of at least three short-term inmates since 2015 at the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility are raising questions about medical treatment at the jail—more than 15 years after the US Department of Justice reprimanded the jail for violating inmates' constitutional rights in similar ways.
Family members of the three men who died are now either suing the county or preparing to sue with the Rothstein Donatelli firm. Two of the deceased, Thomas Pederson and John DeLaura, were dead within 48 hours after being booked while extremely drunk in March 2015 and December 2016, respectively. Another man, Ricardo Jose Ortiz, died from symptoms of opioid overdose four days after being booked in January 2016.
Attorney Carolyn Nichols, a partner at the firm who is handling lawsuits on behalf of Ortiz' and Pederson's surviving families, says the three deaths represent a possible "emerging pattern" of medical neglect at the jail, adding that she hopes the county will settle the DeLaura matter before her firm files a lawsuit for his widow.
Nichols sent a tort claim notice to the Santa Fe County clerk in May on behalf of Lois DeLaura. City police arrested him at their home following an argument. The attorney says Lois gave the arresting officers a list of four medications her husband regularly took, including prescriptions for hypertension, anxiety and pain.
According to Nichols, the nurse who assessed DeLaura's health a few hours after police booked him appeared to do an incomplete job of noting his medical needs and condition. For example, the form only listed two of his four prescription medications, and the nurse also left blank a question asking whether DeLaura was intoxicated at the time of the intake, even though the OMI report later said he was likely drunk at the time.
The autopsy lists his chief cause of death the morning of Dec. 18, 2016, as cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol withdrawal, with hypertensive cardiovascular disease as a significant contributing factor. It also says jailers kept him in a holding cell for 22 hours until he suffered a fatal seizure.
The tort claim notice the firm sent to the county alleges that DeLaura and others on his behalf "requested but was refused and denied proper medical attention," and attributed his death to the "deliberate indifference to [his] medical needs" by jail officials.
"Alcoholics are particularly dangerous" to themselves while incarcerated, Nichols tells SFR. "If [the jail] has someone on their hands who they know is at a high risk of fatality, and they don't do anything they're equipped to do and make sure that person doesn't suffer a potentially fatal complication," they're responsible, she says.
The alleged circumstances surrounding DeLaura's death recall a Department of Justice assessment from 2003 that criticized the jail for similar oversights.
That year, while the private prison company Management and Training Corporation (MTC) still managed and operated the jail, Assistant US Attorney General Ralph Boyd sent a letter to the Santa Fe County Commission declaring medical treatment at the facility to be inadequate in five different areas, including inmate intake and medication administration.
After reviewing jail records, the Justice Department found that a majority of inmates never received full health appraisals while incarcerated, and that "even when [health] staff identify inmates with serious medical needs, they fail to refer them for appropriate care."
The letter cites inmates who regularly take medication for hypertension as being vulnerable to poor intake procedures, and also says the jail's officers were "insufficiently trained in the detection and handling of intoxicated inmates."
The county and MTC agreed in 2004 to come under the direct oversight of the Justice Department in order to address its defects. That agreement ended in 2009, by which time MTC had left and the county was running its jail directly.
County spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic tells SFR the facility currently employs one psychiatrist, one physician and a nursing staff, and hires nurses on contract "when we need additional nurses." She says the county will not comment on pending or threatened litigation.
Nichols says it's unclear why deaths allegedly due to improper medical treatment continue to occur even after drawing the ire of the federal government over a decade ago.
"It seemed like things were getting better; I'm not sure what's caused this situation to deteriorate like it has," she says.
Last month, Nichols' firm filed an amended complaint in the death of Pederson on behalf of his surviving sister in the First Judicial District Court, alleging that the nurse who performed his intake did not adequately assess his risk of severe alcohol withdrawal.
Police booked Pederson on charges of misdemeanor DWI and careless driving the evening of March 15, 2015, shortly after a doctor at Christus St. Vincent measured his blood alcohol level at six or seven times the legal limit. He collapsed from a seizure at the jail the next night, and died shortly after; the OMI listed his death as alcohol abuse with obesity as a contributing factor.
Although the deaths of both DeLaura and Pederson were alcohol-induced, Nichols says that the death of a third Santa Fe man from opioid withdrawal, Ricardo Jose Ortiz, is reflective of a similarly sloppy approach to inmate care.
In that complaint against the Santa Fe County Commission and several jail workers, filed in US District Court for the District of New Mexico in January, lawyers allege that the nurse who filled out his intake form left numerous sections pertaining to his opioid use blank, and inaccurately documented his medical history. Santa Fe city police booked Ortiz for larceny on Jan. 4, 2016.
The morning after a fellow inmate said Ortiz had been "groaning all night," a corrections officer found Ortiz' naked body lying half off the bed, with bodily fluids covering the floor and walls of his cell. A medical examiner pronounced him dead the morning of Jan. 7, and listed his cause of death as acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage due to probable heroin withdrawal.