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State issues El Paso County jails non-compliance notices after deaths behind bars

El Paso County Sheriff's Office jailers
Aaron J. Montes / KTEP News
El Paso County Sheriff's Office jailers watch inmates inside the annex facility on the East Side.

El Paso, TEXAS (KTEP) - Texas jail regulators issued two notices of non-compliance after reviewing documentation and video of inmate deaths in El Paso jails.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards in a January notice found jailers failed to make face-to-face observations during wellness checks. A previous notice of non-compliance issued last year found detention officers failed to meet a state requirement to provide care when an inmate displays signs of medical distress.

"As a result of the non-compliance letter from TCJS, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office will be addressing some policy concerns and also providing additional training to the jail staff regarding proper inmate checks," the sheriff's office said. "We will be making a notification to TCJS within the required 30 days from the date of the notice,” according to a statement from the office in response to a question about the jail not meeting state standards.

The TCJS lists El Paso County under non-compliant jails on its website.

The county has a month from January 22, the day the notice was issued to send a corrective plan of action to the state, Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said.

“At which time, we review to ensure that their proposed corrections will address the areas of noncompliance that were identified,” Wood said.

Wood said regulators will review the county’s observation logs and how jailers are observing inmates during a second inspection.

“And after we are able to determine that the corrective actions have taken hold and followed through with them, then the county can request reinspection,” Wood said.

An inspection following the murder of an inmate in November, regulators noted jails are required by state law to have a procedure to document inmate checks and must make face-to-face observation of all inmates in their facilities at least once every hour.

Additionally, 30-minute checks are required for inmates known to be “assaultive, potentially suicidal, mentally ill, or who have demonstrated “bizarre behavior.”

The TCJS reviewed documentation and video after an inmate murder that revealed while jailers made observation rounds, they did not see “the inmate face-to-face as required by minimum jail standards.”

The notice comes two months after 57-year old Jesus Torres was murdered in the El Paso County Jail Annex.

Investigators said his beaten body was found under blankets the morning after the attack. The medical examiner listed strangulation, suffocation and blunt trauma as the cause of death. The last time an inmate was killed in an El Paso jail was in 1996.

Sheriff Richard Wiles said Torres had not indicated he was in danger.

“I’m not necessarily sure we could’ve prevented the homicide," Wiles said during a press conference a few days after the murder. . “But we could’ve discovered the death quicker.”

Five inmates are facing murder charges and another, 18 year-old Juan Alberto Ortiz is charged with capital murder in Torres’ death.

In another case, Vincent Leyva, 42, died three days after his arrest on March 13, 2023 from an esophageal rupture, according to a report by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office submitted to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

The report shows acute mixed drug toxicity of methamphetamine and fentanyl to be a contributing factor to his death.

The sheriff’s office was aware Leyva had medical problems as stated in the report.

State regulators in that case found, “Video and documentation reviewed for a custodial death revealed jailers failed to notify medical (staff) of the need for possible acute and emergency care of inmate Vincent Leyva,” according to the notice of non-compliance.

A total of 30 people have died in El Paso County jails since 2020. That’s a sharp increase over the previous decade when a total of 27 people died. Drug overdoses and drugs are contributing factors in six of the recent deaths according to the medical examiner's office.

Autopsies showed some inmates had Fentanyl in their system. The powerful synthetic opioid is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

Leyva was booked into the Downtown jail after violating the conditions of a personal recognizance bond. He was charged with possession of a controlled substance.

On the day he died, March 16, 2023, he was found sitting on the toilet in his cell, according to a report by the sheriff’s office. Jailers were conducting a check when they saw he appeared to be “unresponsive.”

The detention officers requested help from the medical staff at the jail. Half an hour later Leyva was transported to Las Palmas Medical Center where he was pronounced dead a full hour after jailers found him in his cell unconscious. The sheriff’s office said his death is under investigation and no foul play is suspected.

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