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Solitary confinement case costs Otero County $2.9M

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Jerome Gonzales had diabetes when he was picked up for misdemeanor DWI in Otero County in 2012.

By the time Gonzales, now 52, of Alamogordo left the county lockup, he had a diagnosis of psychosis – the result, says his attorney, of two months in solitary confinement during which he was often naked, crying, defecating on himself and in need of mental health treatment.

In the simplest reading of the facts, says attorney Matt Coyte, “he walked in without any symptoms and they watched him behave in most inhuman manner for two months” without providing any mental health treatment.

Otero County has now agreed to pay $2.9 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Gonzales, according to a notice filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court. The settlement also provides that a guardian ad litem will be appointed to ensure his ongoing medical needs will be met.

Coyte said in an interview that eliminating solitary confinement, as a bill currently before the New Mexico Legislature would do, would effectively eliminate cases such as Gonzales’, or that of Stephen Slevin, whose solitary confinement in neighboring Doña Ana County netted a $22 million jury verdict in 2012.

According to a complaint filed in federal court, Gonzales was arrested on Feb. 9, 2012, and placed in an observation/isolation cell at the Otero County Detention Center, where his mental health “deteriorated rapidly.”

According to a welfare log kept by the jail, Gonzales talked to himself, beat his head on the door and walls, refused his diabetes medication and stripped naked in his cell.

Three days later, jail staff took him to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, where he was treated for conditions including his altered mental status. He improved. But back at the jail, Gonzales deteriorated again, was strapped to a restraint board and again transported to the hospital. This time, he was diagnosed as suffering from psychosis, and doctors recommended an immediate psychiatric hospitalization.

The jail instead released him from custody on Feb. 15, 2012, the lawsuit says.

Two weeks later, he was arrested for driving on a suspended license, and the following two months would prove to be the worst. After being moved to a solitary cell on March 9, 2012, staff notes show he would strip naked and refuse to drink water or take his medications; staff videotaped him naked and suffering from his acute mental illness.

Gonzales was taken to the hospital for issues related to his diabetes 10 days after the second arrest, and when hospital employees asked about his mental health, they were told he was confused.

The lawsuit says that although Gonzales was not competent to refuse his medications, this was not “meaningfully communicated” to medical providers.

The hospital treated the diabetes issues and the jail staff took Gonzales back to solitary without any psychiatric intervention, according to the lawsuit.

Even after finding him naked, pacing, crying head-banging and smeared with feces, Gonzales was kept in solitary confinement. He lost 20 pounds in jail.

Gonzales hadn’t been able to talk to his family – because, says Coyte, he had been denied privileges, including family contact.

A family member who finally was able to visit Gonzales on May 5, 2012, was shocked. His sister posted his bond, he was released two days later and the family immediately took him to the emergency room at the Mesilla Valley Hospital.

He was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in the Otero County jail.

His traffic tickets and the DWI charge were dismissed in September, meaning Gonzales’ confinement was as a pre-trial detainee who was presumed innocent.

Otero County officials, including the attorneys defending the lawsuit, were not available for comment. In an answer to the complaint filed in federal court, the county said employee actions were objectively reasonable and that Gonzales’ own negligence contributed to the harm he complained of. None of the actions by county defendants constituted a violation of his or his family’s constitutional rights, the answer said.

“We came to the conclusion that it (solitary confinement) released dormant bipolar disorder and now he has PTSD as a result,” Coyte said.