EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) Several families in El Paso all have something in common: they have loved ones who have died while in the custody of El Paso County jails.

Three of those families told KTSM the same thing; they said they want “justice.”

Azhalia Gisele Corral, Gilbert Nunez Jr., and Justin Joshua Flores are some of an increasing number of inmates dying while in El Paso County custody over the past several years.

According to public jail records, from 2010 to 2015, 14 inmates died in El Paso County jails. These include the El Paso County Detention Facility in Downtown El Paso on 601 East Overland and the jail annex on 12501 Montana Avenue.

However, from 2016 to 2022, there were 33 deaths, a 136% increase and 16 of which happened between 2020 to 2022.

The jail records show most deaths were reported as natural causes, such as medical conditions or COVID-19-related complications.

Between 2020 to 2022, nine deaths were reported as suicides, and four others were listed as drug overdoses. Autopsy reports show several inmates were found with fentanyl and other drugs in their system.

KTSM requested an interview with El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles for this story. A spokesperson for his office said because KTSM spoke with families and an attorney, “this would indicate possible civil litigation; county policy is not to give interviews and/or statements related to such matters.”

Former El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez spoke with KTSM about his time in office and how the county oversaw the jail during his tenure.

“The State of Texas mandates that all governments provide jails, and it’s probably the riskiest and most dangerous thing that a county government engages in,” Perez said.

When he was a commissioner, Perez said he wanted to see how long people were in jail and what for.

“Jail should really be reserved for the most dangerous criminals that shouldn’t be out in the public or that pose a public safety risk. But again, we also have to keep in mind that people are innocent until proven guilty.

Vince Perez, former El Paso County Commissioner

Federal lawsuit filed

The family of 22-year-old Azhalia Gisele Corral filed a federal lawsuit against El Paso County. She died by means of suicide on March 6, 2021.

Constitutional rights attorney Dean Malone represents the Corral family; he spoke to KTSM on their behalf.

“When she was arrested, there was just a long list of warning signs, and she indicated she had attempted suicide before. She was depressed,” Malone said.

According to Corral’s autopsy report conducted by the County of El Paso Office of the Medical Examiner, blood toxicology reports revealed traces of benzodiazepine and fentanyl in her system at the time of her death.

The jail report states that Corral initially rushed past a detention officer who had opened her cell door to
give her some toilet paper. Corral then attempted to jump over the 2nd tier railing. Corral was taken to the medical clinic for evaluation, where she stated she thought “about killing herself.”

She was then placed in a cell under a 15-minute observation suicide watch and was seen crying on a bench. Seven minutes after the third check, around 7:30 in the evening, a detention officer observed Corral hanging from the privacy wall by her jail-issued pants.

Malone argued the county should have watched Corral continuously while they waited for her suicide smock.

“So they ordered the suicide smock. Again completely appropriate That’s exactly what they should have done. The problem is that they chose to put Azhalia into a holding cell that had a perforated partition with numerous holes in it right by the toilet and leave her in her standard jail-issued clothing before they brought the smock to her,” Malone said.

Under the Texas Administrative Code Section 275.1 Regular Observation by Jailers:

“Observation shall be performed at least every 30 minutes in areas where inmates are known to be assaultive, potentially suicidal, mentally ill, or who have demonstrated bizarre behavior are confined.”

Corral was under a 15-minute observation at the time of her death.

Drug overdoses and suicides

Gilbert Nunez died on January 25, 2022. His family spoke with KTSM but did not want to speak on camera.

Jail reports show Nunez’s death was classified as a suicide. Detention officers reported they found him unresponsive in his cell Officers recovered several pills from one of the other inmates assigned to the cell block. The pills tested positive for fentanyl, possibly mixed with methamphetamines. The sheriff’s office is working on a separate investigation for the narcotics.

Eric Dominguez and Justin Joshua Flores died on the same day, December 6, 2021, within one hour of each other. Dominguez died around 10:58 p.m., and Flores died at 11:51 p.m.

Dominguez’s report lists his death as natural death, listing the cause as “Gastrointestinal Bleeding due to Peptic Ulcer of Stomach.”

The jail reports state Dominguez was found slumped over in his cell with no response. Earlier in the evening, officers were dispensing medication to Dominguez, and at this time, he fell to the floor. Dominguez was then escorted to the clinic for medical evaluation. He was treated and returned to his cell.

His autopsy report said Dominguez had a history of heroin use, and nontoxic levels of methadone, fentanyl, and marijuana byproducts were found in his blood.

Flores’ death was listed as an accidental drug overdose. According to the jail report, he received his medication around 9:30 in the evening. About an hour later, inmates contacted the guard station office through the intercom system that an inmate had fainted and was not breathing.

At 10:41 p.m., officers responded and observed Flores lying on the floor. They stated that he appeared unresponsive, lying on the floor, and there were no signs of injury or trauma. Flores was transported to a local area hospital and pronounced dead11:51 p.m.

According to jail reports, Flores died from acute Mixed Drug Toxicity, including Fentanyl, Hydroxyzine, Trazodone, Venlafaxine, and 10-Hydroxycarbazepine.

Texas Commission on Jail Standards

KTSM spoke with Brandon Wood, the Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. He said across the state. The TCJS has seen an increase in deaths in jail custody.

He said drugs like fentanyl are increasingly becoming a problem for Texas jails.

“That is one of the big challenges at this point in time in regards to how contraband is able to enter the facility. Oftentimes, it’s through correspondence, letters, envelopes can be laced with the substance, and trying to put into place safeguards to prevent that from occurring is one of the challenges,” Wood said.

He said another challenge for jails was those struggling with mental health.

“We have turned our county jails into the de facto mental institution of our time,” Wood said, “counties and law enforcement need to have the resources available to them in order to properly handle these individuals if they have to interact with them. The best option, of course, is for them never to have to interact or engage with law enforcement.”

Wood said since the COVID-19 pandemic, courts across the state have also seen a backlog in cases, meaning people are staying in jail longer than they should as they await trial dates.

“I think it’s important to point out that the county jail is one piece of the criminal justice system, and it does not have the same ability as other pieces of that criminal justice system in regards to who their housing for how long,” Wood said.

Perez said it’s important for the taxpayers to pay attention to situations where they could ultimately pay the price.

“Cases can be very costly when they go to trial. If there’s an individual that dies in the custody of the county, you can bet that there’s going to be some sort of lawsuit that follows,” Perez said.

According to the El Paso County Attorney’s office, the county has settled three lawsuits within the last ten years arising from deaths in the county jail, and the total amount of the settlements is $1,600,000.

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