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Abandoned behind bars: Man neglected for two years in jail wins lawsuit

Updated: Wednesday, July 17 2013, 02:40 PM MDT
Abandoned behind bars: Man neglected for two years in jail wins lawsuit story image

By: John Purvis

DONA ANA COUNTY, N.M. -- The images of former Dona Ana County jail inmate Stephen Slevin have become infamous since the county agreed to pay him millions of dollars after he spent two years in jail without trial.

Slevin was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in a stolen vehicle, a vehicle he borrowed from a friend and didn't return and went on a trip across America. He was a pre-trial detainee, and he was never convicted of any of those crimes.

Slevin arrived at the Dona Ana County Detention Center in August 2005, and because he was unable to pay his $40,000 bond or afford an attorney, he sunk into despair.

"And it became apparent he was no longer competent to stand trial, meaning his mental health had gotten so bad that he couldn't understand the process against him; the process of the justice system," said Matt Coyte, Slevin's attorney.

Coyte said when mental competency becomes an issue, the wheels of justice can grind to a halt.

For 22 months, Slevin lived alone in a cell at the jail as his mental and physical condition deteriorated, Coyte said.

"(Slevin told) me about fungus on his skin, waking up and seeing the disheveled state he was in. The toenails that grew off the edge of his feet and curled around underneath them. The bedsores; he'd repeatedly move and talk about the bedsores," Coyte said.

Coyte said his client didn't even get dental care and pulled out his own rotted tooth while he was incarcerated. He brought the tooth to Coyte when he got out of jail.

"They were deliberately indifferent to his care. That means they knew he was there and didn't care, and that's different from being ignored," Coyte said.

Coyte sued the county in federal court and alleged it violated Slevin's civil rights. In January of last year, the jury agreed and awarded $22 million in damages to Slevin.

"This has never been about the money. I've always wanted this to make a statement," Slevin said.

Slevin spoke to an Albuquerque television station, KOB, immediately after his court victory.

"I wanted people to know that the people at the Dona Ana County Jail that are doing things like this to people and getting away with it," Slevin said.

The county initially said it would appeal the verdict, but in March, they agreed to settle with Slevin for $15.5 million.

"We're not the monsters that they painted us to be," said Chris Barela, Dona Ana County Jail administrator.

Barela was the jail director through most of Slevin's time there, and he remains the jail's top administrator. He disputes the picture Coyte painted at the civil trial and said Slevin often refused the care offered by the jail, which was his right.

"We did provide him the opportunities for haircuts, we did provide him the opportunity for showering, and we provided him the opportunity to shave. He chose not to shave. He chose not to get his hair cut, and my understanding is, often he chose not to shower," Barela said.

While Slevin was in a cell by himself, Barela said, he shared the unit with other inmates dealing with mental illness and jail staff interacted with them daily.

"At least three times a day, people came in to give him food and then pick up his food tray after he'd eaten his food. At least that many times. If he was on medication, and he was, the people would come in to offer him his medications and check up on him," Barela said.

Barela does admit that his jail was understaffed and underfunded during the time Slevin was there.

"At that time, we did face those challenges. We did have staffing challenges," Barela said.

A group of jurors found conditions at the jail and its treatment of Slevin bad enough to award him one of the largest awards ever given in a civil rights case involving an inmate.

"I think that the presentation at the time of the court, I think the jury was convinced that we were at fault. I'd sit here and say 'we take some responsibility for what occurred,' and God knows I wished that had never occurred to that man. But the fact is we were not completely and totally responsible for the way that man deteriorated. That man made some choices himself as well," Barela said.

Barela said he blames part of this situation on the legal system that wasn't responsive to Slevin who couldn't make bond.

"I believe the legal system the way that it's set up, does have some responsibility in it. I mean my job is to hold the individual," Barela said. "But there were at least 13 instances where we contacted the legal department, and said 'Hey, we have this guy.'"

Before becoming governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez earned a reputation as a tough-on-crime district attorney in Dona Ana County. Coyte said she was known to set some of the highest bond amounts in the state.

"Any DA who gets elected being tough on crime and enjoys the publicity for keeping people in jail for long periods of time and being tough on crime means that you're going to put lots of people in jail. Well, you better have a humane jail if you're going to embark upon a policy like that," Coyte said.

Barela said positive changes are happening at the jail. County Commissioners doubled his budget in the last seven years, and the jail staff grew from 150 to 210.

"We've also transitioned from a county facilitated medical program to a contracted medical program. That's $8 million a year," Barela said. "What that does is that contracts us with a medical department that is a professional entity in addressing these particular situations with jails."

A mental health clinic for inmates is now inside the detention center. It is staffed by a psychiatrist, psychologists and nurses.

Barela said a lot has changed at his jail since Slevin was here.

"Absolutely, I believe we're a better facility. I would go as far to say that I believe we are the best facility in the state right now," Barela said.

Coyte said that his lawsuit will make a difference in care provided to mentally ill inmates going forward, but it comes at a cost.

"I have come to the regrettable conclusion that it's the only thing that will make a difference. The only thing that will stop this behavior is lawsuits like this," Coyte said.

Coyte admits that it was the infamous photos of Slevin before and after his incarceration that made the case and convinced a jury to give his client millions of dollars.

However, Coyte said there are many other jail inmates across the country that won't get any help because they don't have the pictures to tell their story.

For Slevin, Coyte won't say where he is now, but he is still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from his time at the jail, and is also battling cancer.

Abandoned behind bars: Man neglected for two years in jail wins lawsuit
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