July 13, 2020

‘Disturbance’ in San Juan County jail over limited hot meals

San Juan County officials confirmed a “disturbance” took place in its county jail on Monday, resulting in a broken fire sprinkler, two different fires and a piece of a bed used as a “battering ram.”

According to a press release from San Juan County, inmates began demanding to speak with the jail’s administration. The press release said inmates were unhappy that they were only given one hot meal a day. County officials said the lack of hot meals is due to a reduction of inmates and therefore a shortage of available kitchen staff. 

According to county officials the unrest among inmates carried over to Monday when they refused sack lunches. The press release stated that an administrator tried to talk to inmates but was “assaulted” and then a “taser was deployed.”

Officials said inmates then broke a fire sprinkler off in a bathroom, which flooded the area inmates were being held. Then, officials said, inmates started two fires in two separate areas and one inmate allegedly used a broken piece of a bed “as a battering ram to attempt to break down a fire door.”

Both Farmington SWAT officers and the San Juan County Sheriff’s office were called in to remove some detainees and others were put in “lockdown” by the jail, according to officials.

The press release said inmates never took control of the facility and that “It is important to call this incident a disturbance, rather than a riot.”

NM Political Report spoke to an inmate at the San Juan County jail earlier this month after Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to county officials, citing concerns about the jail’s conditions. Nez asked for an investigation after a detainee’s relative reported subpar conditions like a lack of laundry services, inadequate ventilation and a lack of proper sanitation. 

The San Juan County manager told NM Political Report that the facility was inspected by a Department of Health official and that an investigation was not needed. 

The inmate NM Political Report spoke with said conditions had improved over the past few weeks, but that some of the inmates who previously worked in the kitchen tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate said he was not told the results of his COVID-19 test, but assumed he had it since he was moved to a COVID-19 unit. County officials said in the release that COVID-19 test results are sent from the state’s Department of Health to individuals via text message or letter, but added “There is no provision for informing detainees.”

The San Juan facility has a significantly higher number of cases than other county jails across the state and San Juan County includes a part of Navajo Nation, which was hit hard by the disease. 

According to Monday’s press release, 147 of the 345 inmates in the San Juan jail have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been quarantined in five jail pods.