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Detention lawsuit costs county $2.9 million

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ALAMOGORDO — Longtime Alamogordo resident John Gonzales said that he could tell something wasn’t right when he would visit his son Jerome at the Otero County Detention Center in 2012, always in a visitation room with a pane of glass separating them.

His son, who had been jailed on a misdemeanor DWI and for traffic tickets, had sores on his arms and face, made strange comments and had grown out his beard and hair to such a length that “he looked like a caveman.” Family members, he said, took him to the hospital as soon as they secured his release on bond.

But John Gonzales said it was only after watching television news reports on the settlement of his son’s lawsuit against Otero County that he learned the full extent of his son’s alleged living conditions at the jail, including two months of solitary confinement in which he was often naked and defecated on himself.

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“It made me sick to my damn stomach,” he said.

According to Las Cruces federal court records, Otero County agreed to pay $2.9 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Jerome Gonzales. The settlement includes a guardian ad litem to provide Gonzales’ medical needs but does not include an admission of liability.

Gonzales’ attorney Matthew Coyte said on two occasions in 2012 his client was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where his mental health deteriorated until he became psychotic.

“Before he went to jail, on his first or second arrest, there was no history of mental illness,” Coyte said. “When he’s in the jail and placed into solitary confinement, it becomes obvious that it’s toxic to him. His mental health falls off a cliff.”

Coyte said Gonzales was never convicted of the DWI and traffic charges, which were dismissed.

The lawsuit’s narrative

According to court records obtained by the Daily News, Gonzales, now 52, was arrested for alleged DWI on Feb. 9, 2012 and placed in an observation/isolation cell in the OCDC’s booking area.

Detention officers noted in their logs that Gonzales soon began talking to himself and beating his head on the door and walls. Staff also noted that he refused his diabetic medication and stripped naked in his cell, according to records.

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Gonzales received medical treatment at Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center on Feb. 12 and again on Feb. 14, at which time doctors recommended immediate psychiatric hospitalization for him.

The OCDC released Gonzales from custody Feb. 15, 2012.

He was arrested again on Feb. 29 for traffic tickets and placed in solitary confinement.

According to records, during the next two months, staff observed Gonzalez banging his head against the wall until he developed scabs on his forehead. On multiple occasions he stripped naked and defecated in the cell and on himself.

“He didn’t have a toilet in his cells so he would defecate into the open drain hole in the center of the cell,” Coyte said.

Gonzales received treatment at GCRMC for diabetic issues on one occasion but did not receive psychiatric treatment, according to records.

Staff noted that Gonzales “seems lost in mind” and that his feet were in “horrible condition,” according to court documents. He lost 20 pounds during his two months in jail.

Records show that OCDC restricted Gonzales’ access to telephone calls, visitation and group therapy sessions while he was in solitary confinement. Gonzales’ family visited him on May 5, 2012 and, shocked by his condition, gathered enough money to post Jerome’s bond for his release on May 7.

Gonzales was taken to a Las Cruces hospital and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after his release from OCDC, according to court documents.

Aftermath

Gonzales’ sister, acting on his behalf, filed the civil rights lawsuit against former OCDC Warden Virginia Blansett, Director of Medical Services Shirley Walker and a detention officer identified only by his last name, Medina. The lawsuit also alleged that the Board of County Commissioners had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by depriving the mentally ill of adequate medical care and humane conditions, according to the lawsuit.

OCDC Director Dan Stump took Blansett’s place after she retired. Stump said Walker and Medina no longer work at the detention center.

Stump said he could not comment on Gonzales’ case but that conditions at the detention center have improved since he became director seven months ago. He said the detention center does not use solitary confinement but does place some inmates in observation cells for no more than 72 consecutive hours.

“If they come in going through withdrawal or under the influence, they’re place in observation cells so they can be observed, so we can watch over them and make sure they’re OK,” he said.

Stump said that inmates with “obvious severe distress” are taken to the hospital.

Otero County Manager Pamela Heltner said the county’s insurance company, the New Mexico County Insurance Authority, settled the lawsuit. The county paid the $15,000 deductible, she said, and the insurance company paid the rest of the $2.9 million settlement.

The Daily News attempted to contact attorney Luis Robles who represented the county in the lawsuit but telephone calls seeking comment for this story were never returned as of press time.

Coyte said he’s heard of other people who have suffered similarly to Gonzales at jails in Otero County and around the state. A bill currently before the state legislature, House Bill 376, would “hopefully outlaw this kind of conduct that our jails use as a matter of routine,” he said.

Gonzales’ father said that his son’s condition has improved since his release, though he’s still on medication and attends counseling. The $2.9 million settlement, he said, matters less to him than his son’s health.

“What good if you have money if you’re not healthy?” he said. “Health to me is more important than anything.”

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©2015 the Alamogordo Daily News (Alamogordo, N.M.)

Visit the Alamogordo Daily News (Alamogordo, N.M.) at www.alamogordonews.com

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