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$15.5 Million Settlement for Mentally Ill Jail Detainee Held in Solitary Confinement

A mentally ill detainee who was placed in solitary confinement in a New Mexico county jail for nearly two years, without adequate medical or mental health care, accepted a $15.5 million settlement for violations of his civil rights.

Stephen Slevin, 59, served almost 22 months in solitary confinement between 2005 and 2007 at the Doña Ana County Detention Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. On January 24, 2012, a federal jury awarded him $22 million. The award was upheld by a federal judge after county officials challenged it as being excessive, but Slevin decided in February 2013 to accept a $15.5 million settlement and end the legal battle without further appeals.

“It has been a long and hard fight to bring Mr. Slevin justice,” said one of his attorneys, Matthew Coyte. “This settlement, although very large, does not give back to Mr. Slevin what was taken from him, but if it prevents others from enduring the pain and suffering he was subjected to, then the fight has been worthwhile.”

Slevin’s ordeal began on August 24, 2005, when he was booked into the jail on charges of driving while intoxicated and receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle.

“He was driving through New Mexico and arrested for a DWI, and he allegedly was in a stolen vehicle. Well, it was a car he had borrowed from a friend; a friend had given him a car to drive across the country,” said Coyte.

Slevin had a lifelong history of mental illness. He was found to have suicidal tendencies by former Doña Ana County Detention Center medical director Daniel Zemek. As a result, Slevin was placed alone in a bare, padded cell for a few days, then moved to the medical center and finally transferred to solitary confinement in October 2005. He remained there for the next 18 months.

When he entered the jail, Slevin “was a well-nourished, physically healthy, adult male with a mental illness.” On May 8, 2007, he was transferred to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute (NMBHI) for a psychiatric review.

According to Slevin’s civil rights complaint, when he was admitted to NMBHI he smelled, his beard and hair were overgrown and he had a fungal skin infection. He was also malnourished, weighed only 133 pounds and complained of paranoia, hallucinations, bed sores and untreated dental problems. He was disoriented and clueless to the fact that he had spent the last 18 months in solitary confinement.

Slevin received mental health care at NMBHI, and the reintroduction to human interaction and socialization brought back his alertness and awareness. After only 14 days of treatment, however, Slevin was returned to the Doña Ana Detention Center where he was again placed in solitary confinement.

As before, his mental health began to deteriorate. The failure of jail officials to act on his requests for dental care forced Slevin to pull his own tooth while in his cell. His toenails “grew so long they curled under his toes,” the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Slevin was finally released on June 25, 2007 after the charges against him were dismissed. He claimed he had never seen a judge and was placed in solitary confinement with no explanation from jail officials.

Slevin sued for deprivation of his civil rights. At trial, Zemek admitted that he couldn’t remember ever having visited Slevin in solitary confinement during the time he worked as the jail’s medical director, and accepted responsibility for being the person who was supposed to oversee Slevin’s health care.

“There were circumstances beyond my control that contributed to that, my failure. I take the blame, yes,” he testified. Zemek also said he had informed county officials that he felt the jail did not have enough medical staffing.

At the conclusion of the six-day trial, the jury found Doña Ana County Detention Center director Christopher Barela liable for depriving Slevin of his constitutional rights to humane conditions of confinement, adequate medical care and procedural due process, awarding Slevin $3 million in punitive damages.

The jury found Zemek liable for $3.5 million in punitive damages for the same types of violations, and also found that a municipal policy, implemented by the Board of Commissioners for the County of Doña Ana, resulted in violations of Slevin’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as various torts, including false imprisonment. The jury awarded $15.5 million in compensatory damages against the defendants.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported in early 2013 that the County of Doña Ana is responsible for paying $9.5 million of the settlement, while the county’s insurance provider will cover the remaining $6 million. See: Slevin v. Board of County Commissioners for the County of Doña Ana, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:08-cv-01185-MV-SMV.

Sources:, Las Cruces Sun-News, Santa Fe Reporter, Albuquerque Journal

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