LAS CRUCES – Doña Ana County’s Board of Commissioners has agreed to a $15.5 million settlement of a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Virginia man who claimed he was deprived of humane treatment while held for nearly two years at the county’s detention center.
Despite the huge size of the settlement, it still represents a reduction from the $22 million in damages Virginia resident Stephen Slevin was awarded following a trial in federal court in January 2012.
A news release issued Tuesday evening said the County Commission “deeply regrets the harm Mr. Slevin suffered” while he was housed in solitary confinement at the jail before criminal charges against him for DWI and receiving a stolen vehicle were dropped in June 2007 after he was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.
A federal judge late last year rebuffed the county’s attempt to gain a new trial.
The county had argued that the jury’s decision to award Slevin $22 million was improperly influenced by passion or prejudice, but U.S. District Judge Martha Vasquez concluded that the award was not excessive.
During the original trial, Slevin’s attorney argued the inmate lost 50 pounds in the county jail and developed bedsores, that his toenails grew so long they curled under his toes, and that his mental and physical state degenerated while he was housed in a segregated unit due to the lack of medical care and prolonged solitary confinement.
In the news release, the county noted that the budget for the 846-bed detention center has increased from $12.7 million in 2006 to $23.5 million this fiscal year, with most of the increase aimed at improved staffing, training and inmate access to care and services.
Entire cell clusters are now set aside for care of the mentally ill, and the facility is on track to be nationally accredited by two organizations.
“Bold steps have been taken to establish Doña Ana County as the model for detention centers and the care of the mentally ill in the state of New Mexico,” the county statement said. “While we believe the Slevin award was excessive, we respect our judicial system and the role of juries to award damages.”
— This article appeared on page C01 of the Albuquerque Journal