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Jail, Inc.

Budget woes could force Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility to revisit a horrifying past

July 20, 2011, 2:00 am

“Why do you give a shit about that piece of shit?” then-Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility Warden Cody Graham allegedly asked a nurse in late 2002 about inmate Jimmy Villanueva.

Villanueva, 55, was serving a one-year sentence at the facility for violating his probation on an underlying drug-possession offense, when he began to have back pain. SFCADF staff diagnosed him with everything from insomnia to fractured ribs. After Villanueva’s pain became so acute that he couldn’t move off his bunk, the detention center had him transported to an outside radiologist, who observed an abnormality in his chest that the clinician thought could be a tumor. The radiologist referred Villanueva for further testing. When none was performed, a nurse asked Graham about the lack of follow-up. Graham responded by calling Villanueva a “piece of shit.” 

Months dragged on without the prescribed diagnostic testing. At one point, Villanueva told a cellmate that, if he didn’t go to the hospital, he would die in jail. Finally, he was transported by ambulance to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, where an MRI found fast-spreading lung cancer. Villanueva began “urgent radiation treatment” the following day. Two weeks later, still an inpatient at the hospital, he was dead.

“Our expert said that timely intervention could have saved Jimmy’s life,” Mark Donatelli, the Santa Fe attorney who negotiated a hefty settlement 

for Villanueva’s family after his death, tells SFR. “As a result of those delays, the Villanueva family had to experience the tragedy of not only losing a loved one, but watching the incredible suffering he went through with lung cancer.”

Donatelli and others draw a connection between Villanueva’s case and the jail’s management: At the time of his death, the detention facility was run by a private corporation. During eight years of private management, the Santa Fe County jail got into legal hot water not only for Villanueva’s death, but also for several other cases of medical and behavioral health care negligence. Since the county assumed control of the facility in 2005, there have been no medical malpractice suits related to inmate care.

But declining revenues and rising costs have put the prison in a different kind of trouble. Some officials say the county can’t handle the expense, and they’ve proposed a solution: to return the jail’s medical care to private management. To Donatelli and other critics, that’s a death knell for the very prisoners the system is intended to heal. 

And as county officials weigh their options, one company—Colorado-based Correctional Healthcare Management—waits eagerly in the wings.

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