LOS LUNAS — A Valencia County woman has filed a federal lawsuit against county jail employees, alleging violations of her civil rights and inhumane treatment during her various incarcerations.
Jan Green, 50, has filed suit against Valencia County Detention Center Warden Joe Chavez, Rebecca Granger, a nurse practitioner contracted with the jail; detention center employee Captain Ron Perez and an unknown correctional officer, identified only as “John Doe.”
The suit, filed by Albuquerque attorney Matthew Coyte, acknowledges that while Green has suffered “periodic symptoms of mental illness,” she raised four children and held a full-time job throughout her life.
On July 5, 2009, Green was arrested on suspicion of committing an act of domestic violence and booked into the county jail.
Coyte claims that upon entering VCDC, Green’s mental illness was “so obvious a note in her jail file describes her suffering from hallucinations and recommends she see a psychiatrist as quickly as possible.”
In the lawsuit, Coyte does not indicate Green’s specific mental illness, but does allege that she developed post traumatic stress disorder as a result of her treatment during her time in the jail.
“It’s clear in the jail records that prior issues existed. They indicate she had serious mental health issues when she arrived and they didn’t treat the symptoms,” Coyte said in a phone interview on Friday. “No, let me correct that. They treated her symptoms with solitary confinement and pepper spray.”
Coyte says Green was deprived of basic human rights while held at the VCDC.
“The commissioners themselves call the place a ‘dungeon’ and the ‘hell hole of the county,'” Coyte said. “Why are these women in this facility? Why aren’t they housed elsewhere? It’s $80 a day to house them in another facility. They decided for these ladies, the dungeon is better than $80 a day. I want to make sure this stops.”
Between July 2009, and February 2012, Green was in and out of VCDC three times. Coyte claims that during her time at the jail, Green was deprived of medical attention and treatment for her mental health issues. He says she was continually placed in solitary confinement.
The suit claims that when Green was transferred to other facilities in Cibola and Santa Fe counties, she was not placed in solitary confinement and her mental state stabilized, only to deteriorate upon her return to the Valencia County jail.
The suit alleges that Green spent almost the entire years of 2010 and 2011 in solitary confinement in the VCDC. Coyte also alleges that at some point during those two years, due to Green’s poor hygiene, coupled with lack of exercise and proper medical care, one of her socks rotted into an open wound on her foot.
Throughout this time, Green’s children in Minnesota made repeated attempts to get their mother medical attention in the jail, Coyte claims.
In August 2011, Granger went to see Green in the jail, the suit says, where Green alleged to be a doctor and told the nurse she did not need medical help.
According to the suit, Granger indicated that Green “denies mental health complaints” in her file and left Green untreated in her solitary confinement cell.
Coyte alleges that Green’s solitary confinement cell was a converted shower room, not designed for long-term housing of an inmate and contained a dripping shower head that could not be turned off or on from within the cell.
Coyte alleges that Green slept on a pad on the floor next to an open drain, and accuses Chavez of creating a “policy of housing female inmates in an old, dilapidated facility and housing male inmates in the new jail.”
The attorney also alleges that the jail failed to provide Green with sanitary napkins and feminine hygiene products for “extremely long periods of time,” and she was allowed to bleed on herself for months at a time.
Coyte is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants.
Warden Chavez says none of the allegation are true.
“She was never abused or tormented by the staff,” Chavez said. “Everything we did was done for her safety and well-being.”
Chavez describes the jail’s actions concerning Green as “very proactive,” and did say she was a “tough woman to deal with. She could be abusive.”
The warden said there were only a few people on staff that Green would respond to and interact with, one being the jail’s caseworker, Barbara Smith.
“She didn’t respond to most of us. Barbara had to coax her into getting visits from her family,” Chavez said. “She had to coax her into getting cleaned up, showering. Sometimes she would, sometimes she wouldn’t.”
Chavez said when Green first came to the facility, the staff realized she had mental health issues. But even with that recognition, there was only so much they could do.
“Mental health (staff) would go talk to her. She would refuse treatment,” he said. “At that point, she hadn’t been found guilty of a crime, she wasn’t a danger to herself or others. We can’t force treatment on someone, regardless of what we think. It’s hard to get the courts to mandate a treatment guardian, especially if they haven’t been found guilty of a crime.”
And Green was never deprived of feminine hygiene products or the opportunities to shower and take care of herself, the warden said.
“But again we can’t force someone to use these things,” he said.
The “solitary confinement cell” Green was housed in at times is referred to as an “observation unit,” by Chavez. The room, with a toilet and shower, has a large window looking into it so that inmates can be observed, he said.
“It’s near our records personnel, booking and medical intake. There is constant traffic through there,” Chavez said. “She wasn’t stuck somewhere and forgotten about. It was somewhere with constant activity and it was natural, as you passed by to say, ‘Hey, Jan. How you doing?’ We tried to keep her in a social environment so as not to cut her off from people.”
Chavez said Green was placed in the observation unit when she became too unruly to be in the women’s general population area.
“The women are very good at letting us know when someone needs to be moved out,” he said. “We isolated her for her own safety.”
The warden said he and the staff attempted to contact Green’s attorney, a public defender, to have her mental status evaluated, but didn’t receive a response. It wasn’t until Chavez contacted a district court judge directly that a hearing happened.
“We knew she had mental health problems, so we took more of an interest in her,” Chavez said.
Saying the television media reports of Green’s claims were a “gross misinterpretation.”
County Manager Bruce Swingle said he was shocked by the news coverage of the suit.
“This is an absolute discredit to the county, to the detention center professionals at the facility, to the community as a whole,” Swingle said. “I was shocked to see the story (on an Albuquerque news station). We had not received any notification of litigation or a tort claim notice, or any complaints.”
Swingle said mental heath is a major problem across the state and the country.
“Since they have opened the doors on institutes across the country, jails become the de facto mental health program,” he said. “In most cases, the detention center is not the place for people to be.
“But families have no other place to take them, law enforcement has no place to take these people and they end up in jails. This is not best place for them and we understand that.”
With respect to Green’s allegations about her treatment while in VCDC, Swingle wanted to make it clear that despite early media reports, she did not spend two-plus years in solitary confinement.
“She was an inmate on three separate occasions from the period of July 5, 2009, to February 2012. On her first arrest, she was released by the courts after 16 days,” Swingle said. “The entire time she was in the facility, she was either in booking or in general population. At no time was she in observation.”
According to Swingle, Green’s second period of incarceration lasted 358 days, 169 of which were spent in Cibola and Santa Fe county facilities. While at VCDC, Green spent a total of 54 days in observation, the longest single period being 24 days, Swingle said.
After her third arrest, Green was incarcerated for 482 days, Swingle said, 61 of them at the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M.
When she returned to VCDC, she spent 291 days in general population and between three separate occasions, spent 129 days in observation. The longest single period in observation was 73 days, Swingle said.
“When she was incarcerated in Valencia County, we didn’t just sit on our hands in respect to her,” Swingle said. “The county and detention facility went well above and beyond in respect to Ms. Green. The staff there inserted themselves in her criminal case by requesting a setting to get mental health services. Eventually, a hearing was set and the judge sent to her to NMBHI.”
Swingle said Green was never denied medical or mental health care, but did refuse both on numerous occasions.
“This is not who we are. This is not what Valencia County is about,” the county manager said. “I have to say the warden, case manager and staff did an awful lot to try and get this individual help.”
As far as the jail’s condition during Green’s incarcerations, Swingle said, “It’s not a state-of-the-art area, there’s no doubt. But it is clean and sanitary. It is not dilapidated, not unsafe, not an unclean environment. It is just an old environment.
“We are very concerned with the well being of the inmates while they are in our custody. We want the residents of Valencia County to know that this is not who we are.
“The employees at the detention center have a tough job and they are very committed to what they do and they are professionals.”