Drugs Behind Bars

Suboxone, meth, fentanyl show up in the Santa Fe County jail and officials aren’t changing their approach to the problem

Seth Christopher Flores wound up in handcuffs in late July on charges that he smuggled Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder, into the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility—where he’d been working as a guard.

Judge John Rysanek dismissed charges against Flores last month for prosecutors’ failure to comply with time limits due to, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies tells SFR, a “miscommunication” in her office. But last week, prosecutors refiled the charges and are pressing ahead.

What’s less clear is whether Santa Fe County officials are trying to learn more about how drugs continue to make their way into the 612-bed capacity jail. In recent months, there have been several instances in which people in the jail’s custody have either fatally overdosed or died with illegal substances in their blood.

Adrian Hern, 42, died on Aug. 7 while on medical watch, shortly after staff noticed he was sitting on a toilet, foaming at the mouth and not moving. His cause of death was pneumonia and abscess with sepsis, according to county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart.

Two days prior to his death, Hern—who had been in jail for about three weeks on suspicion of violating probation—tested positive for methamphetamine, Suboxone and other opioids.

That was about a month after Flores, who has since resigned, was initially accused of bringing one of those drugs into the jail.

Shortly after Hern died, SFR submitted a request for records related to the investigation into his death and how he may have obtained illegal drugs while incarcerated.

The records the county produced in response appear to indicate that there was no investigation into how Hern laid hands on the Suboxone, which the county only offers to prisoners legally in select instances.

Warden Derek Williams refused several attempts from SFR for an interview through Hart. In response to emailed questions, Hart didn’t address SFR’s records request or the county’s production, instead writing: “All critical incidents are evaluated internally and there was no validating evidence as to how Mr. Hern obtained illegal drugs.”

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office did not investigate, according to spokesman Juan Rios, who, when asked in August how the sheriff’s office believed Hern obtained drugs, responded via email with one word: “Illegally.”

One thing is for certain, the drugs didn’t come from a jail visitor; none has been allowed at the detention center since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with the exception of attorneys.

Officials also don’t appear to be making substantial changes to how they’re approaching the issue of illegal drugs in the jail, despite a majority of the population—the seven-day average is 362 prisoners—having substance abuse disorders.

Some amount of illegal drugs making their way into jails is inevitable, says Jeffrey Holland, a longtime substance abuse counselor who received clemency from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last year for larceny and conspiracy charges he served time in prison for in the late 1990s.

Holland says, however, officials should take steps to stem the flood and ensure corrections officers and other staff are prepared to respond to overdoses and care for drug users.

“They say the jails are totally flooded with Suboxone and dope and they don’t feel that there’s any way that it’s going to stop any time soon,” he tells SFR, referring to his many clients who have entered treatment after being incarcerated in jails throughout the state, including in Santa Fe County. “It’s almost like the Wild West and until you at least try and do something, nothing’s going to change.”

The consequences of illegal drugs getting into jails are sometimes dire.

From 2001 to 2008, overdose deaths in county jails across the nation increased by over 200%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

About 70% of the Santa Fe County jail’s total population needs behavioral health services—and 85% of that group also has substance abuse disorders, Mark Boschelli, mental health manager at the jail, tells SFR.

That’s above the national average for those two conditions to be co-occurring, according to Boschelli.

“I don’t know,” he says when asked why he thinks that might be. “All throughout COVID-19, we had a big uptick in methamphetamine usage, and then over the last four months it’s been methamphetamine combined with fentanyl. Just about a good majority of individuals coming in for incarceration have tested positive for both substances.”

Despite the obvious need, there aren’t many changes on the horizon.

Asked whether the county is considering changing its practices related to hiring or physical screening of guards when they enter the jail in light of a former guard being arrested for allegedly smuggling in drugs, Hart writes that the county does criminal and other background checks on all new hires and doesn’t hire individuals with felony criminal records.

She adds that all employees are inspected when they enter the facility and are subject to a body scan for contraband “upon reasonable suspicion.”

Boschelli says employees receive training on how to identify an overdose and administer Naloxone—which only works for opioid overdoses—but training hasn’t increased or changed since Hern’s death.

Instead, the county is looking at purchasing a better full-body scanning system and staff are trying to identify individuals during intake who might be at risk of overdosing.

“It sometimes is difficult because they will hide opiates on their body, in different body cavities,” Boschelli says. “So we ask that the inmates be honest with us. Sometimes, for different reasons, they choose not to be. That is a concern for everybody.”

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