ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A 73-year-old grandmother with bipolar disorder has filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was kept in solitary confinement for more than a month at the state women’s prison after a popular antacid led to a false positive on a drug test.
Carol Lester, the former executive director of the Ruidoso Board of Realtors, says she was in solitary lockup for longer than prison policy allowed and wasn’t given her medications for mental and physical illnesses, including a heart ailment.
Lester, who has since been released from prison, was serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to embezzling money to support a slot machine gambling addiction, according to her lawsuit. Newspaper accounts at the time said she embezzled more than $100,000 from the board.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court last month, alleges Lester was put in segregation at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants two years ago as the result of a false positive urine test for drugs. Lester says she was given the test after complaining about inadequate medical care for prisoners.
Her lawsuit alleging that her constitutional rights were violated was filed just a couple of days before Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel announced to lawmakers that his department aims to reduce the percentage of state prisoners who are in solitary confinement by roughly half over the next year: from 9.6 percent to 5 percent.
The women’s prison in Grants is operated by Corrections Corporation of America for the state, and it houses state prisoners.
Lester was released from prison last year, according to her attorney, Matthew Coyte.
Coyte has filed other lawsuits related to solitary confinement – most notably on behalf of Stephen Slevin, who was held for nearly two years at the Doña Ana County Detention Center before charges against him were dropped after he was found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Slevin was awarded $22 million in damages after a federal court trial; the county eventually agreed to a $15.5 million settlement.
“Generally speaking, solitary confinement is a toxic and ineffective way to discipline people,” Coyte told the Journal. “But even if it was appropriate in some instances, it could never be rationalized as a reasonable thing to do to a 71-year-old woman.”
According to the lawsuit – which names as defendants Corrections Corporation of America, officials of the Grants prison and Corizon, a contracted medical provider – Lester was held for 34 days in solitary confinement after being “accused of being ‘dirty’ for methamphetamine.”
The lawsuit says 30 days was the maximum for a first-time drug violation.
The lawsuit also maintains Lester has never used the drug and attributed the false positive result to her use of Zantac, which she had been given at the prison to treat stomach problems.
But she was not allowed to produce evidence of Zantac use at a disciplinary hearing, the lawsuit also alleges.
According to the lawsuit, the urine test was administered shortly after Lester and her family had contacted the Department of Corrections to complain about inadequate medical care and a state corrections official met with her at the prison. The lawsuit alleges retaliation.
Lester says her medication – including nitroglycerin for a heart condition – was withheld or not provided on a timely basis while she was in segregation. She says she had anxiety attacks, had difficulty sleeping and lost about 15 pounds during her confinement, during which she “did not leave her cell for weeks at a time except to take a shower when offered.”
A spokeswoman at the prison said Monday that she could not comment on the lawsuit, but would pass along a request for comment to CCA officials in Nashville, Tenn.
The Department of Corrections is not a defendant in the lawsuit but provided a statement from Marcantel on Monday that referred to the department’s plans to reduce the number of inmates in segregation.
The statement says, in part: “We are actively making changes to ensure that predatory inmates who posed a danger to our system, our officers and other inmates are the offenders in segregation, and not those inmates who had been preyed on.
“We are focusing on more educational and life skill programs, even for our segregated population, to make sure the 96 percent of our population that will return to our neighborhoods will return better than they left.”