Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Solitary Instead of Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoner Costs New Mexico Jail $2 Million

by R. Bailey

New Mexico’s Otero County Board of County Commissioners agreed to pay a former Otero County Detention Center (OCDC) pretrial detainee $2 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit that alleged punishment without due process.

The suit claimed that OCDC had a policy or practice of placing mentally ill prisoners in segregation without a hearing. Such placement deprived them of phone, mail, recreation, social interaction and other amenities that were afforded to general population prisoners, and thus constituted a procedural due process violation.

The complaint further alleged that placing mentally ill detainees in solitary confinement, in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, also amounted to punishment – a substantive due process violation. And because mentally ill prisoners were subjected to that treatment, OCDC’s policy or practice constituted a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Roxanne Estrada was booked into OCDC on December 4, 2013. She was 22 years old and had a documented history of schizophrenia and depression.

Her ordeal began from the day after her arrest and lasted until she was released on February 9, 2015. Estrada insisted that she was pregnant even though she was still menstruating. She continued to seek help for her phantom baby throughout her stay. She was agitated when staff took a spork she was sticking in her ear, complaining that her baby needed it for breathing.

Her strange behavior escalated and she began putting sandwiches, bottles, graham crackers, deodorant and other objects into her body cavities. Estrada paraded around her cell in the nude, pulled her hair, talked to herself, defecated and urinated on herself, and threatened to commit suicide. As a result she was kept in isolation, on suicide watch or in administrative segregation.

Per OCDC policy, she was housed in a holding cell or in Detox B; both cells had glass fronts and were in common areas visible to male and female guards, other prisoners and visitors. In Detox B she had no bed, sink, toilet and usually no clothes; she had to use a hole in the floor as a toilet while others could watch.

Despite Estrada’s bizarre behavior, she did not receive any mental health treatment until her fourth month in segregation. On March 3, 2014, a mental health provider recommended that she be placed in the general population. OCDC staff denied that request.

Estrada was offered psych meds on March 26, but the guards who distributed them were untrained in ensuring that she took them, and she refused the medication due to her mental state. A request by crisis intervention staff that Estrada undergo a psychological evaluation was rejected by OCDC officials.

Her condition continued to deteriorate and on October 22, 2014 she was diagnosed with “failure to thrive” – a condition common in young children and elderly adults. After losing 50 pounds, she was transferred to a hospital for treatment in November 2014. The following month she was sent to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, where she was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and borderline intellectual functioning.

When Estrada was finally returned to OCDC, staff placed her back in isolation where she remained from January 20, 2015 until her release on February 9. She had spent around 14 months in isolation while held at the jail. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.63].

Her removal from the general population and placement in segregation was done with no hearing and few or no mental health evaluations. The County Board of Commissioners agreed to pay $2 million to settle Estrada’s lawsuit in January 2018, but clarified it was not doing so as an admission of guilt.

Private medical contractor Correct Care Solutions also was named as a defendant in the case, as well as one of the company’s employees, Dr. David Birnbaum, who reached a separate, confidential settlement in April 2018. See: Estrada v. Otero County Board of County Commissioners, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 2:16-cv-00749-WJ-GBW. 

Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Estrada v. Otero County Board of County Commissioners