ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sierra County has settled for $750,000 a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of a former inmate who was held in solitary confinement without his medications for over two weeks in 2012, and left the detention facility with post-traumatic stress disorder added to his list of disorders.
Albuquerque attorney Matthew Coyte, who has litigated multiple cases involving solitary confinement, filed the dismissal notice Tuesday on behalf of Michael Faziani against the Sierra County Commission and six employees at the now-closed county detention facility.
The civil lawsuit filed in 2014 in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque describes Faziani, a former temporary resident of Sierra County, as a middle-aged man with a history of bipolar disorder and chronic back pain, both of which he says the county jail officials were aware of when he was arrested for failing to report a minor accident at a McDonald’s restaurant in which he scraped the side of his car on a metal post.
Faziani had a more serious, rollover accident a week later for which he was prescribed narcotic pain medications, the lawsuit says, but he was arrested and taken into custody in mid-June for a misdemeanor of failing to timely report the McDonald’s accident and filing a false accident report about it.
Faziani was not taken before a magistrate until July 3, 2012, when he was released.
While at the jail, he did not receive an adequate medical screening, the lawsuit claims, as was the policy and practice of the jail administration, which used administrative segregation or solitary confinement for inmates with mental illness despite the common knowledge among corrections facilities that solitary is “particularly toxic to those suffering from severe mental health problems.”
The lawsuit says Faziani’s ability to care for himself or advocate for himself quickly disintegrated without medications, and his cell became filthy because he wasn’t able to clean it. One of the administrators, Virgil Eaton, “had a policy of paying inmates with narcotic medication, ‘pills,’ or tobacco to clean up the mess mentally ill inmates created,” the lawsuit said. “Some mentally ill inmates in segregation would defecate and wipe their feces on the walls.”
Beyond that, according to the lawsuit, administrator Curtis Cherry used untrained detention staff to monitor such special housing cells and to administer medications even though he knew some staffers had substance abuse problems.
Coyte said in the lawsuit, and in a phone interview, that Cherry failed to provide training even when it was requested for dispensing medications, saying the County Commission wouldn’t pay for it; failed to hire medical staff; and let inmates refuse medications without seeing a medical professional.
“They were goofing around with meds of inmates, so some wouldn’t get them,” Coyte said.
The Sierra County Sheriff’s Office investigated the jail based on whistle-blowing alleged by a guard, he said, and found some detention officers using drugs in the parking lot and returning to work to complete a shift.
There were also instances of officers paying young female detainees with pills, according to allegations in the lawsuit and a sheriff’s office report.
“It’s one of the worst corruption cases in the jail I’ve seen,” Coyte said.
He said Faziani was released “to the streets in terrible shape. Eventually he walks to the emergency room (at the Sierra County Hospital in Truth or Consequences) and they treat him. Then he leaves New Mexcio and has no interest in ever coming back.”
The Sierra County jail was closed last November, he said, and now serves as a transport center from which detainees ultimately are sent to Luna county.
The Sierra County attorney could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
One of the guards, William White, has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit that is pending in state District Court in Sierra County.
Meanwhile, several criminal cases have been filed relating to some of the same defendants as those in the Faziani lawsuit.
Virgil Eaton, 39, a jail sergeant, is charged in a criminal information filed in June in the 7th Judicial District with two felony counts of criminal sexual penetration in the second degree on an inmate in a correctional facility and five counts of battery. His case is pending trial.
Miguel Herrera, 23, entered a guilty plea to two counts of criminal sexual penetration of a female inmate and no contest to two others. The state dismissed three counts in the plea agreement reached Oct. 28 in the 7th Judicial District. The state does not oppose supervised probation, but the sentence will be decided by the judge at a hearing in February 2016.
Joshua Corley, 24, entered a guilty plea in February to criminal sexual penetration of a female inmate and bringing contraband into a jail, both felonies, and to four misdemeanor counts of criminal sexual contact and indecent exposure in exchange for a potential deferred sentence.