FARMINGTON, N.M.—Nationwide, the number of people who die in jail is rising. Here in New Mexico, three deaths in three months in San Juan County’s lockup caught the attention of attorneys and the local newspaper.
Thirty-four-year-old Jesus Marquez was in jail on domestic violence charges. He was set to appear at his first hearing on the morning he died. KUNM went to Farmington to speak with folks who knew him and inmates at the facility.
A corrections officer brought a cuffed Rudy Martinez into a small room and sat him across the table and asked, "Is a minute notice good for you?"
When the guard knocked on the door, we’d have to wrap it up. It was midsummer. Martinez commented that it was comfortable in the interview room. I told him it was hot outside. "Oh, it is?" he said. "I haven't been outside in like eight months."
In March, Martinez said, he was finally in the medical unit after his skin had been infested with scabies for three months. He said he’d been complaining about it like crazy. He found himself three cell doors down from Marquez, who was hurting bad. "He was asking for medical attention for 48 hours at least."
Martinez had been listening to Marquez screaming from his cell. “ 'Hey, get the nurse! I don’t feel good!' They should have checked him," Martinez said. "Could have saved his life. I think they neglected him, and he passed away."
Martinez said during his one free hour out of his medical cell, he tried to get his friend help. But he was told to mind his own business, that Marquez was known to cry wolf.
Marquez had filed a grievance about the medical care he was receiving in jail about a month before he died. He wrote: “Medical is worthless. We need to pretty much be dead to have any medical care.” Martinez agreed.
"Maybe they could up their standards a little bit, because people are sick in here," Martinez said.
You don’t have the option to care for yourself, Martinez explained, so frustrations about health care grow quickly behind bars. And other stuff does, too—contagious illnesses, rashes, skin mites …
"We make mistakes, but I don’t think we’re animals," he said. "We’re human beings, you know? They treat me like an animal, you know? That’s how I felt about it."
According to Marquez’ autopsy report, he had severe strep throat when he died. It went untreated and became pneumonia and, likely, sepsis. The report pointed to complications from diabetes. Other inmates we interviewed also mentioned having trouble getting the right amount of insulin at the right times.
Lawyer Christian Hatfield is representing Marquez' mother, as well as another 27 people, who say they were denied treatment and medication in jail. "They request that they be seen by medical, and the requests are often ignored," he said. "Then, when things get serious enough or when medical comes by and they are provided quote 'medical care,' it's often woefully insufficient."
The lawsuit asserts that except in extreme circumstances, the jail avoids transporting inmates to the hospital, because there’s a fee each time.
"Three people died in a very short space of time of what appear to be easily preventable illnesses and injuries that they could have been saved from had they been provided adequate medical care," Hatfield said.
Hatfield’s restricted by a two-year statute of limitations for these cases, but the feds wouldn’t be, so he’s called on the Department of Justice to investigate. "We believe in the disinfecting power of sunlight," he said. "So we thought it would be good for the county, good for the jail, and good for people who happen to find themselves there."
Jail administrators refused to comment on jail conditions and the pending lawsuits. So did San Juan County commissioners and other county officials.
Jesus’ aunt, Sharon Marquez, said his death left a big void in her family. She said it’s hard for people to watch their loved ones suffer in jail.
"He had called his mom, which is my sister, repeatedly asking her to try to get them to give him help," she said. "He kept on saying that 'My chest hurts, mom. My chest hurts.' "
Jesus Marquez had been behind bars for 9 months. He still hadn’t had his day in court and hadn’t been convicted. Court records show he was going to plead not guilty.
"In our society we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty," his aunt said. "But unfortunately, you get thrown in jail, you’re guilty until proven innocent."
Being helpless, she said, being unable to provide care, treatment or solutions, "You get a lot of anxiety, stress, all sorts of emotions, because your hands are tied basically because there’s nothing you can do."
And when you’re in there, she said, you’re property of the state; that’s who’s responsible for you.
Find more, including links to the original Farmington Daily Times coverage, at publichealthnm.org. Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.