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New Mexico Jail Sued For Allowing Woman Prisoner to Die of Infections

by Keith Sanders

On February 25, 2021, the estate of Carmela DeVargas, who died while in custody at the Santa Fe County Detention Center, filed a federal lawsuit against the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners and its employees. The suit alleges officials at the Detention Center failed to provide adequate medical treatment for DeVargas as she succumbed to meningitis and other bacterial infections.

DeVargas, 34, was arrested for a probation violation in September 2020. She suffered from Opioid Use Disorder and two weeks after being booked into the Detention Center Devargas developed a severe fever that would not go away. Guards at the jail were unresponsive to her complaints. According to another prisoner, Alma Anaya, the guards told DeVargas to go “shoot up more heroin up your arm.”

Dr. Melequides Olivares, the Center’s Medical Director, was made aware of DeVargas’s condition, but failed to attend to her medical needs that resulted from opioid use. By the time her condition deteriorated and became critical, Dr. Olivares had her transferred to Christus St. Vincent Hospital. But it was too late. DeVargas was paralyzed from the neck down and placed on life support because she could not breathe on her own. Fifteen days later, Devargas was removed from life support and died.

Attorneys Richard Rosenstock and Daniel Yohalem were retained by Carmela’s father, Antonio DeVargas, who administers her estate. The attorneys filed suit in the Rio Arriba District Court and brought claims against Santa Fe County officials under 42 U.S.C. §1983, the American Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Rosenstock and Yohalem allege conditions at the Detention Center, coupled with the failure of staff to address DeVargas’s medical needs associated with her opioid addiction, contributed to her death. They cited rampant drug use inside the Center, as well as instances of guards being charged with possession and sale of drugs inside the facility.

The Santa Fe County Detention Center has a history of neglecting the health and medical care needs of its prisoners. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the Center and reported delays in the treatment of prisoners and widespread management and administrative failures regarding medical care. The Justice Department’s investigation discovered that jail personnel did not assess incoming prisoners for serious illnesses or provide adequate medical care. Prisoners at the “Detention Center with serious medical needs are at risk for harm,” the investigative report concluded.

Since then, other prisoners have died while incarcerated at the Detention Center. Breanna Vasquez and Rex Corcoran, Jr. were also being held on probation violations and perished within days upon entering the fail. Vasquez, like DeVargas, succumbed to meningitis and Corcoran, Jr. died of sepsis. The family of Vasquez sued Santa Fe County for negligence and wrongful death; they were awarded $400,000 to settle the suit. See: Estate of Breanna Vasquez v. City of Santa Fe Police Department, USDC D NM, Case No. 1:16-cv-01286-WPL-KK.

Corcoran, Jr.’s family started a petition to impanel a citizen Grand Jury to investigate conditions inside the Center. DeVargas’s attorneys document in their lawsuit other prisoner deaths at the facility that resulted in millions of dollars in settlements against Santa Fe County. Many of those, according to Rosenstock and Yohalem, resulted from the jail’s failure to address treatment needs of opioid-dependent prisoners.

According to a 2018 New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee Report, over 38,000 substance abuse deaths occurred in the state from 1990 to 2018. In 2018 alone, 11% of all deaths in New Mexico were attributed to substance abuse.

DeVargas’s attorneys noted in their suit that other New Mexico county jail facilities have implemented an opioid-dependent treatment program. The Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) utilizes buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone to treat individuals, like DeVargas, who suffer from Opioid Use Disorder. Yet Rosenstock and Yohalem allege that “despite being advised by experts that MAT was the standard of care for inmates suffering from Opioid Use Disorder, Defendants refused to adopt and implement such a program.” See: DeVargas v. Board of County Commissioners for Santa Fe County, USDC D NM, Case No. 1:21-cv-00271-RB-SCY. 


Sources:, La Jicarita magazine

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Related legal cases

DeVargas v. Board of County Commissioners for Santa Fe County

Estate of Breanna Vasquez v. City of Santa Fe Police Department,