An incarcerated community

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(This is the first of a three-part series about the judicial process in Valencia County. The series takes a look at the frustration of some inmates and county officials experience regarding the length of time it takes to get a case resolved. Upcoming stories will report on the perspectives from the district attorney’s office, public defenders and a judge.)

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: The warden at the Valencia County Adult Detention Center in Los Lunas says dozens of inmates in the county jail are waiting for their day in court. He says the cost of housing the inmates increase every day.

Right now, there are dozens of inmates sitting in the Valencia County Detention Center in Los Lunas.

And they are all waiting on one thing — their day in court.

And the man in charge of the detention center would dearly like them to get there, if, for no other reason, than eliminating the cost of housing and caring for them.

Earlier this year, Warden Joe Chavez reported to county commissioners that there were 39 inmates who had been in the detention center — or in the more common vernacular — county jail for more than six months.

Every day that someone is held at the jail it costs the county, and county taxpayers, $65. And that’s assuming the inmates are in good health, both physically and mentally.

If someone is brought to the jail with an existing medical condition or injury, or develops one while there, Chavez said the jail is on the hook for the costs.

Those costs can range from $400 for an ambulance transport to thousands of dollars for surgery.

If an inmate has a heart attack, Chavez said there is the cost of the ambulance, emergency room visit, not to mention the overtime for the detention center officers.

“We can’t just send them to the hospital by themselves. It drains our resources,” he said.

One extreme example is Edward Jude Baca. He was booked into the jail on Oct. 30, 2008. He hasn’t been out since. Baca is being held on a $150,000 cash or surety bond for the 2008 willful and deliberate first-degree murder of 56-year-old Joseph Montoya.

During his three years and eight-plus months at VCDC, it has cost $87,890 just to house Baca. During 2010, he suffered numerous health issues, resulting in an additional $3,327.10 being paid out of the county indigent fund.

If an inmate has mental health issues or needs to be evaluated to determine if he or she is competent to stand trial, that means time and money spent on evaluations at the mental hospital in Las Vegas.

Chavez said a question of competency can result in a 30, 60 or 90 day evaluation in Las Vegas.

“That doesn’t come out of my budget, but it does slow things down,” he said. “The state has the option to then try to ‘rehabilitate’ the inmate back to competency through therapy or making sure they are compliant with medications.”

Some inmates seem to exhibit mental problems that result in the need for medical care. Chavez said one inmate, Ruben Davis, who was booked into the jail on March 31, 2011, injures himself.

“He will swallow razor blades or punctured batteries. We take him to the hospital and he will refuse treatment,” Chavez said. “Then we will have to make the choice of treating him against his will or leaving him be. Either choice could lead to death.”

The county has spent an additional $472.74 from the indigent fund on medical costs for Davis between July 2011 and February.

The warden says it’s time to “get these guys moved out and off to prison.” The jail is a detention facility, used to hold an inmate until bail is posted or they are needed in court. Chavez said inmates sentenced to 364 days or less of confinement can be kept in local jails, but anything over that and they are looking at time in a prison after they are sentenced.

“We do get some sentenced to less than the 364 days,” Chavez said. “But the rest, those are not my decision. It’s up to the courts and district attorney.”

From what he has seen, Chavez said the inmates’ families seem to understand that he has no control over the situation.

“They get information from the inmate. They get that the jail doesn’t know how long things will take,” he said. “Their biggest concern is they haven’t seen a judge for arraignment, the lawyers are not ready, there’s a continuance, the hearing has been postponed.”

Chavez said he sent his six-month inmate list to 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office and public defenders’ office in Santa Fe.

“Hopefully they will get tired of me asking, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with this guy?’ And in six months, I’ll do it again,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of communicating with each other — the public defender, the judge, DA and inmate — to try to get the system more fluid instead of just stopping.”

But in the meantime, Chavez and the inmates sit and wait until schedules can be coordinated, deals are struck and the time is right.

“They don’t ask for my input. From what I’m told, the hard part is with the public defender. I’m not going to pretend I know what they do,” he said. “The biggest inmate complaints are they can’t get hold of them, don’t come see them. I tell them to write or call and give them free access to a phone.

“The biggest thing I have to do is make sure these guys are not forgotten about while we’re housing them here. I do my part to make sure they are not rotting away,” Chavez said. “They are in the right place. Now it’s a matter of, it’s time to get them adjudicated and through the system. We are still depriving them of their rights.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.