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Ex-jail inmates’ lawsuits detail squalid solitary conditions

March 6, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A string of lawsuits alleging mistreatment of New Mexico jail inmates in recent years has cost five counties more than $20 million in legal settlements and jury awards.

Nearly a half dozen more of the civil rights cases are pending in federal court, each brought by former inmates with mental illnesses who were housed for weeks or months in solitary confinement.

The complaints describe squalid conditions in bare cells where the inmates were held in isolation as they awaited trial on charges ranging from drunken driving to burglary.

Jail administrators and their supporters have maintained that corrections officers often must place inmates, especially those suffering from mental illness, in solitary confinement to keep them from harming themselves or becoming the target of others.

Here’s a look at the cases against counties from 2012 to present:

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STEPHEN SLEVIN

Slevin was 49 when he was arrested on a drunken driving charge and booked in the Dona Ana County Detention Center in Las Cruces, where authorities deemed him suicidal and placed him in isolation.

He left the jail malnourished and underweight after 22 months of neglect, according to his lawsuit. As his mental state declined, he lost the ability to take care of his hygiene and gave up on asking for help from jail authorities.

Denied dental care by the jail, he pulled out one of his teeth during his stay.

A judge dismissed the charges against him in 2007. A jury sided with Slevin in a civil rights case against Dona Ana County five years later, and officials agreed to pay him $15.5 million in 2013.

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JAN GREEN

In a filthy New Mexico jail cell, Green battled schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in isolation.

The mother and computer technician was kept in a cell for months at a time after her arrest on a domestic violence charge that the state would later drop. According to her lawsuit, she was denied feminine hygiene products and the conditions of her confinement became so bad that a sock rotted into an open wound on her foot.

She reached a $1.6 million settlement in 2014 with Valencia County, which maintained there was no wrongdoing on the part of jail officials.

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JEROME GONZALES

Gonzales was denied mental health care during a three-month stint in a solitary confinement cell in Otero County, despite his deteriorating mental state, according to his lawsuit.

At times, he would strip naked and cover himself in feces. He was detained on charges of driving with a suspended license and kept in a holding cell that his attorney called “an outrageous violation of contemporary standards of human decency.” The charges against him were later dismissed.

In 2015, he settled a lawsuit against the county for $2.9 million, an agreement that allowed the county to maintain that there was no wrongdoing on the part of its employees.

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MICHAEL FAZIANI

Faziani begged for medication, a shower and toothbrush while held in isolation around the clock for more than two weeks.

He was denied all three during 18 days in a solitary cell at the Sierra County Detention Facility. A culture of corruption allowed jail officers to withhold medication from Faziani and other inmates, his complaint said. Jail officers were also accused of paying inmates in pills or tobacco to clean the cells of the mentally ill.

Faziani had been arrested in June 2012 on accusations that he failed to report a fender-bender at a McDonald’s. He spent his entire 13-month stay at the now-shuttered Sierra County jail without having the opportunity to appear before a judge.

His charges were dismissed upon his release from jail in July 2013, and a lawsuit he filed against the county was settled for $750,000 in December 2015.

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GEORGE ABILA

Abila lived for six months straight in a tiny, 42-square-foot cell at the Eddy County Detention Center.

Several suicide attempts that involved swallowing screws, slitting his wrist with a razor and swallowing a razor had led authorities to place Abila in the stark cell with no bed or toilet. It was a move the warden’s defense attorney said was needed to keep Abila from attempting to take his own life again.

But his depression deepened, and by the end of his stay, he had sores from sleeping on a hard floor in a cell where cool air blew through the vents almost constantly.

He was being held at the Eddy County jail on a burglary charge and later entered a guilty plea for it.

In January, Abila settled a civil rights lawsuit for $1.9 million.

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This report is made in collaboration with the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s communities of color. The project is partially sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in partnership with the Asian American Journalists Association, National Council on Crime & Delinquency and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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