Former New Mexico inmate Stephen Slevin has been awarded $15.5 million in damages after Dona Ana County Jail officials locked him in solitary confinement, then essentially forgot about him for 22 months. Slevin faced drunk driving charges, but his case never went to trial and he was never convicted.
According to spokespersons, Slevin was separated from the general jail population because of his "history of mental illness." His condition has since worsened, and he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Appropriately, he is a millionaire for his troubles. But his situation raises important questions about the use of solitary confinement and the institutional treatment of mentally ill inmates.
The details of Slevin’s plight are gruesome. During his imprisonment, he grew facial fungus, bed sores, lost significant weight, and developed a dental infection that eventually forced him to extract his own tooth. He suffered about five anxiety attacks per day, and never received any medical attention. Slevin also protested his treatment daily, writing letters and begging with guards, but his pleas were routinely dismissed.
During the lawsuit’s pre-trial motions, county representatives denied allegations of lack of medical care, along with almost every other charge. But they eventually changed their tune. They pointed out that Slevin’s treatment was indeed a failure of the jail system and of the "legal community" as well. They make a valid point: for 22 months, no charges were formally made, no trial date set, and no legal representatives came for Slevin.
Recent coverage implies that Slevin has no family to speak of. When he was arrested and locked up in 2005, clearly no one came for him. He is alone during on-camera interviews, with no friend, partner, or family member by his side in support. And in a society where people with mental illness are consistently stigmatized, misunderstood, and forgotten, the ease with which this man fell through the cracks of the judicial system is both angering and indicative of much broader problems.
Foremost is the justification for his solitary confinement. Jailers separated him because of his mental illness, but nothing else was done to meet his health care needs. As of last year, studies indicated that it costs $31,307 annually to imprison one person. 2.4 million people are behind bars nationwide. Responsible taxpayers should demand that far more of this money be allocated for rehab and health care efforts.
Another major concern is the use of solitary confinement itself. Matthew Coyte, Slevin’s attorney, states that he and his client hope this case will help stop its usage nationwide. "Other countries recognize it as a form of torture," he says, "whereas America uses it as a routine method of incarceration." It’s an important point, and one worth discussing in a culture that places far greater emphasis on draconian punishment than rehabilitation.
This incident is a prime opportunity for New Mexico to lead the charge in this respect. Authorities and CNN have already claimed Dona Ana County is taking "bold steps" to improve its jail, making it "the model for detention centers and the care of the mentally ill in the state of New Mexico." Only time will tell.
But Stephen Slevin must still live with this horrific incident ingrained in his psyche. What the future holds for him is anyone's guess.