An Ongoing Battle

Corrections staff work to prevent drug trade in county jail

By Ryan Lowery | May 14, 2019

Ashley N. Fernandez approached the nondescript door on the back of the courthouse early in the morning. She moved quickly, and everything went as planned. She hurried back to a car parked on Morrison Street and drove away, headed toward National Avenue in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

The transport van arrived hours later. Carrying inmates from the San Miguel County Detention Center, it pulled up to the door at the back of the courthouse. It was Thursday, May 10, 2018, and Jason C. Smith was being transported to District Court for a hearing in a drug possession case. As he stepped out of the van, he checked for an important package that was supposed to be attached to the railing by the door — a package containing 16 strips of Suboxone, an opioid. Inside a jail, each strip can fetch as much as $100, according to an affidavit filed in San Miguel Magistrate Court in May 2018.

Video cameras mounted above the door and on the corners of the building captured his movements, just as they’d captured Fernandez’s actions earlier that day.

After his hearing, Smith checked for the small package again. This time, he located it on the ground. Fernandez had affixed a magnet to the package to make it stick to the railing. She’d tested it, she’d told him during a jail call, but somehow, the package had fallen to the ground.

Smith dropped his court paperwork. When a guard stopped to pick up the sheaf of documents, Smith used the distraction to retrieve the package. Cameras watched him, but so did court bailiffs. Smith was pulled aside and searched. Following a review of surveillance video, Smith and Fernandez were each charged with multiple felonies.

This case is just one example of the struggle SMCDC staff face when attempting to keep drugs out of the facility. On Nov. 6, 2019, Albino N. Alcon was charged with two felonies after SMCDC staff found contraband on Alcon following a court hearing at the Mora Magistrate Court. During a search, corrections officers located Suboxone strips hidden inside his court paperwork.

Alcon told police he’d been instructed to pick up the Suboxone from the courthouse restroom, but he said he didn’t know who’d placed it there, according to a statement of probable cause filed in San Miguel Magistrate Court.

A package of Suboxone, an opioid legally used to treat addiction.

While both of these cases involved attempts to bring drugs into SMCDC after court visits, Warden Matt Elwell said that most attempts to bring drugs into the jail occur during bookings.

“Most of the contraband is coming in on the person, and most of it is internal,” he said. “Where there’s a need for that drug, there are going to be mules — as they call them — who get in trouble on purpose and pack their body internally with the drugs.”

Those mules will often swallow condoms or balloons filled with drugs, or they will insert them into body cavities in an attempt to sneak them inside the facility. It’s something Elwell and his staff have seen many times before, so they know what to look for.

“We monitor that, and if we have someone that we suspect, we put them in a dry cell and wait for it to come through,” he says.

People visiting the jail have also attempted to pass contraband items to inmates. But again, jail staff know what to watch for, and they remain vigilant during visitations. Being vigilant and performing random cell searches are two of the most effective tools corrections officers have, according to Elwell.

The powerful grip of addiction continues to fuel a market for narcotics behind bars though, and inmates will always find new ways to get drugs while incarcerated.

“Where there’s a need, they’re going to be inventive and find a way,” Elwell said. “It’s an ongoing battle that every jail faces.”

He said his staff is ready for that battle though, and when someone is caught attempting to bring contraband into the jail, they will face serious criminal charges.

Fernandez was convicted of felony distribution of a controlled substance in October 2018. She was sentenced to three years supervised probation.

Smith too was convicted for felony distribution of a controlled substance. With previous convictions for robbery, forgery and larceny, Smith was sentenced as a habitual offender. He is currently serving a seven-year sentence at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe.

Courtesy San Miguel County Detention Center

Ashley N. Fernandez

Courtesy NM Department of Corrections

Jason C. Smith

Convicted on charges of bringing drugs into jail

Alcon was charged with one felony count of bringing contraband into jail, a felony count of conspiring to bring contraband into jail and misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. He was released from SMCDC in January after posting bond and is currently awaiting trial.

While jail staff battle to keep drugs out of the facility, many inside the jail are fighting battles with addiction. It’s a battle that jail staff are able to help them fight though. With the help of grant money, the jail offers several medication-assisted treatment programs, most often to treat addiction to alcohol or opioids.

The jail’s medical staff helps inmates through detox, and then the jail’s three social workers can begin treatment programs. Treatment even extends after an inmate is released, Elwell said, providing them with counseling and assistance finding employment.

“Once they’re detoxed, and they want to get treatment, they can go right into a program,” Elwell said. “We’ve seen lives changed, and we’re proud of that.”