In spite of his history of mental illness, Stephen Slevin was locked away in a small, padded cell in solitary confinement at the Dona Ana County, New Mexico, Detention Center not long after he was arrested and detained.
Two years later, having never been tried for the charges for which he was jailed, Slevin emerged from solitary a shell of his former self, his body riddled with bedsores and fungus, his toenails curled under his toes.
He had pulled one of his own teeth after being denied dental care. His mental illness, naturally, had only worsened.
In 2012, a jury awarded Slevin a $22 million judgment for what he was forced to endure before the county appealed and ultimately settled with Slevin for $15 million.
And now, within its joint October 2013 report, "Inside the Box," the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) are using Slevin's story to illustrate just how cruel, overused and unnecessary solitary confinement is in the state's prisons and jails.
"Holding people for months in solitary confinement is contrary to any notion of rehabilitation or reintegration," said Gail Evans, the NMCLP's legal director. "The evidence is clear that isolation results in cognitive deterioration, which can be irreversible, meaning that our prisons and jails are inflicting brain damage on our citizens."
According to the NMCLP and ACLU-NM, as much as 16% of those incarcerated in New Mexico—including roughly 6,700 total offenders held in the state's 11 prisons and thousands more detained in New Mexico's 29 county jails—are being held in solitary confinement. At Albuquerque's Metropolitan Detention Center alone, which houses approximately 2,500 prisoners, more than 300 are held in solitary confinement at any one time.
Even worse, at least 25% of prisoners held in solitary by the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD)—a conservative estimate, according to the NMCLP and ACLU-NM—are serious mentally ill.
Such figures rank New Mexico among the worst abusers of solitary in the country, leading NMCD in June 2012 to ask the Vera Institute of Justice to assess its use in state prisons and recommend changes.
"We got in the habit of making it too easy to lock down prisoners," said Jerry Roark, NMCD Director of Adult Prisons. "Right now, we have way too many non-predatory prisoners in segregation. We need to change that, and we're working on it."
Among the other findings of the ACLU's and NMCLP's report:
In 2013, the average length of stay for NMCD prisoners held in Levels V and VI (the state's "Supermax") is 1,072 days, or nearly three years. And 95% of NMCD prisoners held in solitary will eventually be released.
"How these prisoners are treated while detained plays a substantial role in determining how they will adjust to public life and whether or not they re-engage in criminal activity once released," the report said. "Those who have experienced extreme solitary confinement, and especially those with mental illness, re-enter society ill-equipped to handle the 'free world' in a healthy constructive way."
Source: "Inside the Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico’s Prisons and Jails,” American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, October 2013.
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