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‘Treated Like an Animal’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Stephen Slevin was booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center on Aug. 24, 2005, for DWI and other charges, he was physically healthy and weighed 185 pounds.

After spending most of 19 months in solitary confinement, he was sent in May 2007 to the state Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas for a psychiatric review.

By that time, he was malnourished, 50 pounds thinner, unkempt and looked like a wild man.

“His toenails had grown so long, they curled under his feet,” and he suffered from bedsores and a fungal infection on his skin, according to court filings in the federal lawsuit that went to trial last week in Santa Fe.

A jury awarded Slevin $22 million in damages against Doña Ana County for depriving him of his right to humane treatment in the county’s lockup.

Slevin suffered from depression when he was arrested, but while incarcerated, his mental health deteriorated due to the lack of medical care and prolonged solitary confinement.

“He was treated like an animal for almost two years,” said attorney Matthew Coyte of Albuquerque. “Worse than an animal. You wouldn’t put an animal in a cell that size, and not let them out, and if you did, you’d be arrested.”

At one point, he “disappeared into a delirium,” according to a recent trial brief. Slevin was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He is a different human being now. He’ll never be the same again,” Coyte said.

Slevin is in his late 50s and has returned to his home state.

Doña Ana County spokesman Jess Williams had little to say about the outcome of the case but said the county plans to appeal.

“We feel we have a strong basis for appeal,” Williams said, declining to describe the basis for it.

After being booked, Slevin quickly began filing requests for medical help, complaining of anxiety attacks and difficulty sleeping. Slevin was “begging for help” in those first months, Coyte said, but the requests dried up by January 2006, as Slevin deteriorated.

Slevin was put in solitary confinement in October 2005 and remained in the windowless 6-by-11-foot cell room until May 2007, when he was sent to Las Vegas for a two-week evaluation.

With treatment and interaction with others, Slevin’s condition improved at Las Vegas. But when he was returned to the Doña Ana County Detention Center in late May 2007, he was again put in solitary confinement where again his mental health began to slide.

Because of the lack of medical care, Slevin pulled one of his teeth out by rocking it back and forth with a finger, Coyte said.

Slevin had been indicted on charges of possession of a stolen vehicle, aggravated driving under the influence, driving with a suspended or revoked license, and driving with an open container. He was held in lieu of a $40,000 bond, and pre-trial delays and competency evaluations extended his stay in jail.


Instead of treating mental health issues, his lawsuit says, the jail administration put Slevin and others in solitary confinement in a block of cells used to house the mentally ill.

Because there were so many people housed in the area, and inmates were only allowed out of their cells one at a time, inmates frequently did not get an hour per day of “recreational” time.

Nurse practitioner Dan Zemek, the detention center’s medical director for about half of the time Slevin was incarcerated, prescribed Slevin psychotropic drugs for about 10 months “without ever going to see him,” according to a court filing.

When Zemek left the job, jail administrator Chris Barela allowed Slevin to continue receiving medication prescribed by Zemek for months afterward.

After charges against Slevin were finally dismissed, he was released on June 25, 2007.

In November 2007, after months of warnings about inadequate care for inmates with mental health issues, the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights New Mexico, a nonprofit advocacy organization, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates with mental health issues, against Doña Ana County Detention Center for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and constitutional prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The lawsuit was settled in early 2010 with the county agreeing to improve services and intake screening procedures. The county also pledged not to put inmates with mental health issues in solitary confinement unless other options are exhausted.

Given how the detention center was run, said Nancy Koenigsberg, legal director for Disability Rights New Mexico, “I am not surprised that the jury understood that he (Slevin) was in pretty dire circumstances.”

But, Koenigsberg said, mental health services at the detention center have improved markedly in the past two years. The detention center is now staffed by a full-time psychiatrist and full-time psychiatric nurse practitioner.

“How things are now and how they were when Mr. Slevin was there are remarkably different,” Koenigsberg said.

The $22 million amount awarded by the jury Tuesday included $3 million in punitive damages against Barela, $3.5 million in punitive damages against Zemek, and $15.5 million in compensatory damages against Doña Ana County.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal