County Defends Lockup after $22 Million Award

January 31, 2012

Dona Ana County officials are defending how they run their jail following a huge monetary verdict in favor of a former inmate.

A federal jury Wednesday awarded Stephen R. Slevin, 58, of Virginia Beach, Va., $22 million after hearing about conditions his attorney, Matthew Coyte, of Albuquerque, called virtual “false imprisonment.”

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported county spokesman Jess Williams issued a statement Thursday attacking local and national coverage that said Slevin was forgotten about and left to “decay” in jail.

Williams said that according to the county, Slevin was deemed a threat to himself upon intake at the detention center and was observed for three days in a special cell in the medical wing for his own protection. Williams said Slevin was offered a chance to join the general jail population, but declined and the only option after his refusal was to place him in one of the facility’s 28 administrative segregation cells.

Records show for the next five months, “Slevin regularly requested and received medical attention and commissary purchases. After that period, he stopped requesting those services. He frequently refused offers to leave his cell for recreation and exercise.”

The county maintains the length of Slevin’s 22-month stay was “entirely” in the hands of then-district attorney Susana Martinez’s office, the public defender’s office and state District Court.

Williams noted that Slevin’s criminal history at the time of his arrest was 26 pages long, and included out-of-state convictions for robberies, burglaries, drunken driving, receiving stolen property, firearms violations and, possession of drugs.

Court documents say that in 2007, having “disappeared into a delirium,” Slevin was sent to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., for a psychiatric review, and was malnourished, “smelled, was disheveled and had an overgrown beard and hair … untreated dental problems and complained of bedsores and a fungus on his skin,” in addition to toenails “so long they curled under his feet,” the complaint states.

After two weeks, Slevin was sent back to the Dona Ana County jail – and solitary confinement, where he was “forced to pull his own tooth” because the county wouldn’t provide even “rudimentary dental care,” according to the complaint.

The cell area in which Slevin was housed was monitored by cameras and by officer patrols throughout each and every day that he was housed at the facility, Williams wrote.

“In addition, medical rounds were conducted three times daily, and prescribed medications were dispensed to Slevin and other detainees,” Williams wrote.

“The Dona Ana County Detention Center has historically faced significant challenges in terms of treating mentally ill detainees, but the challenges were consistently addressed throughout the time Slevin was incarcerated, and the efforts continue to this day.”

The jail was opened in 1996 and was expanded in 1999.

“The cells and cell blocks throughout the facility are clean, well-lit and have windows for detainees to look out and for officers to observe the detainees,” Williams wrote.

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