On April 16, 2020, Albuquerque police harassed, arrested, and cited Joleen Nez for littering. Ten months later, she died in jail.
Nez, a homeless, Indigenous woman was confronted by an Albuquerque Police Department officer when she failed to dispose of two items of litter. This officer, Preston Panana, ordered Nez to pick up an empty paper cup and bowl that was on the curb. Panana, after demanding multiple times that Nez — who is an adult — pick up the cup and bowl, decided to escalate his harassment to an arrest and a ticket. Nez received a citation for “improper trash disposal.”
During her arrest, Nez listed her address as the Albuquerque Indian Center — a local homeless shelter for Native Americans. Like many unhoused people, Nez did not permanently live in this shelter and aid center, and because she was not there when the court summons arrived, it was returned to the court on May 11, 2021. As a result she was not aware of the arraignment or hearings in May and June. Instead, an arrest warrant was issued.
Seven months later on Jan. 29, 2021, Nez was arrested and incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center. As a drug user, she was placed on “medical watch” for substance withdrawal. Other inmates told the jail medical staff that, soon after entering the jail, Nez was vomiting and severely withdrawing.
At 10:54 a.m. on Jan. 30, Nez’s “failure to appear” charge was dropped, meaning that, after a small amount of paperwork, she would be released. Less than an hour later, she had suffered an “episode” in her bunk, was resuscitated and then rushed to the hospital, where she then lost consciousness and died.
On Jan. 31, MDC finished processing Jolene Nez’s release paperwork and listed her as “released.”
A much larger story
This tragic story was completely ignored by the mainstream press in Albuquerque and nationally. Instead, it was uncovered by the local university’s student newspaper, The Daily Lobo, which published an article shortly after Jolene Nez’s death was announced. The Daily Lobo uncovered much of this troubling story — including reporting the facts about the arrest warrant that Nez never received (it had been returned to the DA’s office) and the dropping of Nez’s failure to appear charge hours before her death.
After being scooped by a student newspaper, the city’s daily paper — The Albuquerque Journal — and local television stations began to investigate and discovered a pattern of negligence, suffering and death, especially for inmates during detox, at MDC.
Nine people have died in MDC during the past year, and eight of these deaths took place in a five month period from August 2020 to to January 2021. The majority of these deaths involved Native American and Latino victims. Investigators point to serious understaffing problems and mismanagement of operations by jail officials. In addition to deaths, investigators noted multiple injuries. Frontline workers have complained regularly about unfilled positions and how medical officers were constantly slow to respond to emergency situations. The medical contractor Centurion, which works within MDC, has refused to answer any questions about these issues.
The real crime: homeless, Indigenous, and addiction
The death of Joleen Nez, and all of those in MDC custody, is an utter tragedy. The Albuquerque Police Department, with its harassing, abusive practices, and the MDC, with its utterly inhuman and criminal negligence, are to blame for these deaths. In the eyes of the APD and MDC, what crime had Nez committed? They say littering, but the reality is obvious — she was Indigenous, homeless and a person who used drugs in a city that would like all three of these groups to die off. This was the case for Orlando Abeyta, Dominic Smith, Valente Acosta-Bustillos, James Boyd, and many others. The city blames “a lack of resources,” but the reality is that they have no interest in a better life or compassion for these people.