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Valencia County pays $1.6 million in jail case

LOS LUNAS – A federal lawsuit against the Valencia County Detention Center by a mentally ill inmate who was held in solitary confinement for long periods and who claimed she was denied feminine hygiene products and not allowed to shower has been settled for $1.6 million.

Jan Green was arrested in July 2009 on suspicion of domestic violence and booked into the county jail.

Albuquerque civil rights lawyer Matthew Coyte said in the lawsuit that, upon entering the jail, 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.”

The lawsuit filed last year alleged that Green was denied medical care, mental health visits and was kept in solitary confinement for long periods – 73 days in one stretch.

Warden Joe Chavez said jail personnel went out of their way to help Green and that he opposed settling the case. He said that when Green became disruptive, she was removed from the women’s general population and put in a cell near the booking and records area in the jail.

“Officers made it a point to check on her. I would talk with her two or three times a week,” Chavez said. “One of our female staff members had established a good relationship with her, so she could get Ms. Green to leave her cell so we could clean it and she could shower.”

Some of the more disturbing allegations made by Green were that the jail staff did not provide her with adequate hygiene products when she was menstruating and did not allow her to shower.

In an interview just after the lawsuit was filed in December 2012, Chavez said they provided Green with feminine hygiene products and the opportunity to shower, but they could not force her to use the products or bathe.

Chavez said he and his staff went above and beyond to get help for Green while she was at the jail, going so far as to contact the judge assigned her case directly and ask for a speedy trial.

“We contacted her attorney, who really did not visit her at all, reached out to the judge. I kept in contact with her daughter by email, since she didn’t live in the area,” Chavez said. “We paid a lot of extra attention to her. I think what hurt us, the only thing we failed to do, was properly document each and every time she was seen by the medical department, for either a health issue or for mental health.

“What really disappoints me is, she was in here prior to me running the jail. The courts knew she was mentally ill and kept putting her back in.”

In addition to the monetary award, the settlement lays out operational changes at the jail. County Attorney David Pato said the requirements are already in place, and have been since before the settlement was finalized.

“These policy changes ensure they will never be able to house someone in the cell they had Ms. Green in for longer than 48 hours,” Coyte said. “… It was a horrific, disgusting place to be.”

Other terms of the settlement agreement include guaranteeing a psychiatric visit to any inmate held in the cell within 48 hours and that inmates put in administrative segregation will receive a psychiatric review at least every seven days.

“They didn’t have that before,” Coyte said. “We feel confident that this is a start, but by no means an end to this horrific practice – the use of solitary confinement.”

Coyte said hopefully the “substantial financial settlement” would also act as a deterrent to keep this kind of treatment of an inmate from happening again in any jail in the state.

“This is an ongoing battle, not just in Valencia County but in jails throughout New Mexico,” he said. “It is a pervasive problem and the people who run them know it, too.”

Coyte was the same attorney who won a $22 million jury award in 2012 for Stephen Slevin after the Doña Ana County jail kept him confined to solitary for nearly 22 months.

Chavez said he would rather have gone to trial with the case than settle and is concerned that a settlement sends the message that the jail was in the wrong.

“Any time there is a settlement, there is the perception that you must have done something wrong. I adamantly deny any of the accusations in the suit,” the warden said. “Even though we are a jail, we have some mental health care, but we are not a mental health facility.”

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