A former inmate has just been awarded $22 million. This award stems from a lawsuit initiated after he spent almost two years in solitary confinement in a New Mexico prison after being arrested for DWI, theft, suspended license and other criminal charges.
Stephen Slevin, 57, never appeared before a judge and spent close to two years in the Dona Ana County jail until the charges against him were dropped. He was initially jailed on Aug. 25, 2005.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported, Slevin was physically healthy, but suffered clinical depression, at the time he entered the Dora Ana jail. His health is said to have deteriorated as he went delirious from the time spent in solitary confinement. Reportedly he was segregated from general prison population due to his history of mental illness.
Slevin's lawyer, Matthew Coyte of Albuquerque, said by May 8, 2007 Slevin had lost a third of his body weight, his beard had grown to the length where it reached his chest, he had fungus on his skin, bed sores and "toenails curling around his toes." Coyte described Slevin as "been driven mad."
Eventually Slevin's charges were dismissed as he was deemed unfit to be able to participate in his defense and he was released from the jail on June 25, 2007. Court papers cited him as being "incompetent and not dangerous."
Slevin's attorney sued the for inhumane treatment and violating his civil rights and won. Listed as defendants were the Doña Ana County Board of County Commissioners, the Doña Ana County Detention Center, jail Director Chris Barela and the jail's former medical director, Daniel Zemek.
According to NBC affiliate KSN, Slevin says he begged for medical care during his time in the prison. He cited depression and denials to see a dentist.
“Walking by me everyday, watching me deteriorate, day after day, after day, and did nothing, nothing at all to get me any help,” said Slevin. Slevin told KSN he ended up pulling out his tooth.
Jury selection for the trial began on Jan. 17 and the case appeared before U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez. On Tuesday the jury returned a verdict that awarded Slevin $15.5 million in compensatory damages against all defendants. Additionally they awarded him $3 million in punitive damages against Barela and $3.5 million in punitive damages against Zemek.
This jury award is one of the largest federal civil rights settlements in history for an inmate. Slevin reportedly suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and will require medication for life as a result.
"It is the worst case of solitary confinement in the country," said Coyte. "He's suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder." Coyte also said "They threw him in solitary and then ignored him," adding that his mental health deteriorated due to being "isolated from human contact and a lack of medical care."
CNN reported Slevin said about the verdict, "This has never been about the money," adding, "We made a statement about what happened to me."
The Las Cruces Sun reported the defendants plan to appeal the award.
County spokesman Jess Williams said, "There was a verdict against the county and we certainly plan to appeal it," said county spokesman Jess Williams. "We feel we have a strong case, at multiple levels, to pursue the appeal."
Williams did not elaborate because of county policy that does not allow for commenting on pending litigation.