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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

Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility Director Annabelle Romero started her career in corrections as a compliance monitor at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, where she oversaw the implementation of changes designed to improve living standards at the facility.
Credits: Wren Abbott

Santa Fe County Corrections Director Annabelle Romero shuffles around her office, which is adorned with photos of family and an aerial shot of the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility. Romero looks more the part of librarian than director of a multi-million dollar correctional facility: She is soft-spoken and wears her hair in a bun, and comes across as sincere when she describes her passion for corrections work. Romero started her career at the state penitentiary right after the 1980 riots left 33 inmates dead. She was brought in to monitor the penitentiary’s compliance with the Duran consent decree—a set of care standards imposed on the jail after Dwight Duran, a former inmate, sued over poor standards of living.

For Romero, working at the penitentiary in the wake of one of the country’s most notorious prison riots was instructive. 

“I saw firsthand what happens when we take shortcuts,” she says.

When Santa Fe County took over operation of its jail in 2005, Romero was brought in as corrections director. As a nationally recognized corrections expert, she has testified as an expert witness on standards of inmate care in civil cases nationwide.

Today, Romero is one of the main obstacles in the push to privatize inmate medical services at the Santa Fe County jail. 

Though conditions at the jail have improved since Romero started there—and the county’s yearly insurance premiums have decreased by about $1 million since its biggest liability adopted better standards of care—the specter of its history still looms.

Between 1998 and 2005, the facility was run by private contractor Management & Training Corp., which subcontracted with Physicians Network Association for inmate medical care. 

During that time, 10 cases—including Villanueva’s—cost the county and its contractors millions of dollars in settlement fees. In 2003, Santa Fe County and its private contractors paid out one of the largest civil settlements in US history to the Santa Fe family of Tyson Johnson, another man who died at the facility.

Indeed, medical negligence at SFCADF was so egregious that the facility earned the scrutiny of the US Department of Justice, which conducted multiple investigations into the jail’s practices and ultimately issued an injunction to force the county to maintain basic standards of care.

Romero makes an intuitive point: that the only way to lower costs is to reduce the quality or volume of medical care.

“I actually don’t believe that there’s money to be saved without compromising [care],” Romero says. “I don’t think I’m doing more than what I’m constitutionally required to do right now.”

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