A $15.5 million settlement to a man who was confined in isolation for almost two years after he was charged but not convicted of driving while intoxicated is shedding light on the horror that can befall someone incarcerated even on mere allegations of criminal activity.
Stephen Slevin, arrested for a DWI and accused of driving a stolen car that he said he borrowed from a friend, was placed in solitary confinement shortly after he arrived at Dona Ana County Detention Center in New Mexico because he declined to post a $40,000 bond. After one medical examination, Slevin, who was severely depressed even before his arrest, was deemed suicidal and placed in a padded isolated cell with no natural light for 23 hours a day.
Once in that cell, Slevin faced an insurmountable battle in changing his circumstance, in spite of neglect so severe that his toenails grew to curl around his foot, he pulled out his own decaying tooth and fungus grew on his face. He sent letters saying “I’m afraid to close my eyes” and “I don’t know much longer I can go on.” But the only response he received was greater sedation, his lawyer told NBC News. After two years in this circumstance, the charges against Slevin were dropped and he was released, having never been found guilty of any crime. Slevin later sued and won a $22 million jury award, an amount that was upheld by a federal judge in a decision that sums up the horror of the conditions he withstood:
[The] evidence included letters written by Plaintiff seeking help, and sick call requests documenting Plaintiff’s suffering from bed sores on his thighs, fungus growing on his face, rotting teeth, pain, inability to sleep and nightmares where he could not sleep. … Medical records kept by the Detention Center similarly documented Plaintiff’s experience of pain and suffering, and the lack of treatment for his many medical and dental conditions. … Plaintiff … spent six months along in his cell with virtually no human contact before his release.
Although first attempting to explain away his lack of recreation time by testifying that Plaintiff refused to come out of his cell, [Detention Center Director Christopher] Barela testified that he would not have put his dog in a cell like Plaintiff’s cell and left him there for a month at a time, even if his dog refused to come out. He admitted that, if his dog refused to come out, he would wonder what was wrong with her and take her to the veterinarian. Barela also acknowledged that he knew it was not acceptable to leave his dog or Plaintiff in the conditions in which Plaintiff was left [...]
With regard to the injurious effects of administrative confinement on Plaintiff, his expert, Dr. Grasisan, … testified that Plaintiff was “more massively impaired by the PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, than [he] ha[d] ever seen in [his] entire professional life.” According to Dr. Grassian’s testimony, Plaintiff’s life “is kind of torture.”
To compound matters, Slevin is now suffering from lung cancer, and he accepted the county’s settlement offer of $15.5 million even though the higher $22 million judgment was upheld by a judge. Even that lower sum is one of the largest prisoner civil rights payouts in history – an unsurprising fact considering the extremity of the mistreatment of an individual who, it is worth repeating, was never found guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever. But the solitary confinement of individuals with identified mental health concerns is alarmingly common, in spite of evidence that the mentally ill are particularly vulnerable to long-term psychological harm from isolation. As in many detention facilities around the country, it was the policy of Dona Ana County jail to put people with mental health issues into solitary confinement — one of several issues that also prompted a class lawsuit by the ACLU of New Mexico that yielded reforms in 2010.
The rampant use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons for not just the mentally ill (who are increasingly jailed in place of mental health treatment) but also children as young as 13 has become so severe that the federal agency tasked with overseeing prisons agreed last month to undertake a closer examination of the practice, which has been deemed torture, cruel and inhumane, and worse than being held hostage in Iran.