Twice last week people asked me about the County's deficit and the huge Slevin verdict. They asked, “Why didn't heads roll?”
Fact is, some county employees opined privately that Detention Center Manager Christopher Barela should have been fired well before the Slevin trial.
The jury socked Barela with $3.5 million in punitive damages. The overall verdict of around $22 million led to a settlement for more like $15 million, of which the County paid half.
But lower-ranking county employees, who fear retaliation and won’t let their names be printed, point to longer-term problems, including alleged favoritism and an allegedly dubious relationship with a vendor. (Independent contractor Aramark employs Barela’s younger brother, and Aramark employees have allegedly spent parts of their shifts working at the boxing gym where Barela coaches.)
Jail officers point to Barela’s special treatment of jailed relatives and friends, including David Peña and convicted murderer Moses Mancheca, Barela’s nephew.
Barela’s great love is the PAL Boxing Gym. Peña was a young boxer there. He got hired at the Detention Center. While on probation he survived two disciplinary issues that one long-time officer said would have gotten most people fired. The same officer said Peña later quit in lieu of attending a termination hearing.
In February Peña tried to kidnap his ex-girlfriend from in front of her place of work on Amador Street. It was his second arrest, and violated a restraining order imposed after the first.
Peña was isolated for his own protection from inmates who had known him as a jailer. A long-time officer says the isolation was right and proper, but that where he was isolated wasn’t.
Peña was allowed to stay in the medical wing. That was allegedly Barela’s decision, overriding the judgment of the Health Care Lieutenant and the Classification Lieutenant. If so, it also allegedly violated written policies against giving preferential treatment to friends and family, or even appearing to do so, and against using one’s position of authority to get an inmate preferential treatment.
Officers had been trying unsuccessfully for two years to get televisions in that area Within three days of Peña’s incarceration, holes were drilled and a TV was installed in Peña’s single-man cell (though not in a nearby four-man cell), allegedly on Barela’s order . One officer called it “direct favoritism.” ( I wrote this shortly after the incident. I assume the neighboring cell also has a TV by now.)
Barela denies favoritism. He told us they had been looking for a way to put a TV in such cells, which are not as tall as normal cells. That means a destructive inmate could reach the TV. He said that once they found a TV they hoped could withstand attack, they wanted to experiment. The first inmate they spoke to said he didn’t want a TV. The second was highly destructive. Barela said Peña just happened to be the next chance to test a TV.
Barela also allegedly made a change to accommodate his brother Ronnie, who had been arrested for a third DWI. There were no curtains on showers. This fact troubled Ronnie. Very soon some curtains appeared. Some subordinate officers viewed this as favoritism.
A few years ago, Barela’s nephew Moses Mancheca was charged with first-degree murder. Normally, such prisoners are housed in maximum security. As one officer put it, “A man looking at twenty years or more has a lot less to lose. And they’re more of a predatory type inmate than a prey type.”
Mancheca was reportedly permitted to roam among medium security prisoners.
Barela says the decision on Mancheca was made by the classification officer, based on published criteria, and that he didn’t participate.
Barela denied knowledge of an investigation of his relationship with Aramark, an independent contractor at the Detention Center.
Aramark employs Ronnie Barela. Chris Barela says that although Ronnie got his job at Aramark during Chris’s tenure at the Detention Center, there’s no connection.
Other officers say Aramark would have fired Ronnie but for Chris's position. One, asked whether Aramark employed a brother of Chris Barela’s, replied, “Oh, you mean the one they’re scared to fire.” Another said Aramark changed Ronnie Barela's job after his third DWI conviction, but would likely have fired anyone else.
Officers also allege that Aramark employees, sometimes as part of their shifts at the Detention Center, work at the boxing gym.
Documents show two Aramark employees admitted they work at the Detention Center, apparently on the County’s nickel.
A commissioner reported this issue to new District Attorney Mark D’Antonio for investigation, and D’Antonio passed it on to the New Mexico State Police. Agent Clint Norris was reportedly investigating this and other issues.
That was months ago. The investigation appears to have stalled. Officer Norris failed to respond to several phone messages. When asked, Commissioners Wayne Hancock and David Garcia confirmed their understanding that Norris was assigned to investigate, but said they’d received no report. When I asked D’Antonio recently, he said he hadn't heard back but would check with the investigator. (Calls to D’Antonio late last week and early this week have yielded no further information.)
Then, just at this column's deadline I spoke with Agent Norris. He said, "It's still under investigation. There's been some road blocks we've run into that I've been trying to push through." He'd also been called out of the area on other business during the past several months. He said he couldn't estimate when the investigation might wrap up -- that of course he hoped to wrap it up within a few more weeks, "but couldn't swear to it." He did not, of course, specify the road-blocks or divulge any specific information regarding his investigation.
We deserve to know the truth.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, December 15th. It represents my opinions, not the newspaper's.]
[I'd postponed publishing this column, for various reasons, for months. I should say that in my discussion with Barela himself he was gentlemanly and courteous and said some good things about running a prison; and I['m well aware of the challenges he faces in his job; but the problems discussed in the column -- and a couple of others I didn't feel sufficiently knowledgeable about to include in the column -- need a fair and thorough investigation. I hope Agent Norris is giving them that, and have no reason to believe he isn't. It was reassuring finally to talk to him. However, if we don't see some coherent resolution of this soon, that will be troublesome.
I believe Mr. Barela's contract may be up for renewal soon. Both he and we would be well-served by seeing the fruits of Agent Norris's work sooner rather than later.]