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Former inmate wins $22 million over 'forgotten' solitary confinement

By Bill Mears, CNN
January 25, 2012 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Slevin alleges he was held in solitary confinement for nearly two years
  • The charges against him were eventually dismissed and he was never prosecuted
  • His attorney says he was segregated because of his history of mental illness
  • "We made a statement about what happened to me," Slevin says

(CNN) -- A New Mexico man held in solitary confinement in a county prison for nearly two years without ever being prosecuted has won a $22 million jury award for violation of his constitutional rights, officials said.

It is one of the largest federal civil rights settlements in history involving an inmate. Stephen Slevin alleged he was essentially forgotten while in custody.

"This has never been about the money," Slevin said in a halting voice outside the federal courthouse in Santa Fe, just after the jury's decision.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress from what he called physical and mental mistreatment by corrections officials in Dona Ana County, in the southern part of the state.

"We made a statement about what happened to me," he said of the verdict.

Slevin, 58, was arrested in August 2005 and charged with driving while intoxicated and receiving a stolen vehicle near Las Cruces. His lawyers said the prison segregated him because he had a lifelong history of mental illness.

Albuquerque civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte said his client then began to deteriorate while in isolation.

"They threw him in solitary and then ignored him," said Coyte. "He disappeared into delirium, and his mental illness was made worse by being isolated from human contact and a lack of medical care."

Slevin's lawsuit alleged he became malnourished, lost significant weight, developed bedsores, fungus and dental problems and was not aware of his situation or surroundings.

He was transferred to another state facility for two weeks, where he was given a psychiatric evaluation and then sent back to the Dona Ana County Detention Center, where he was again placed in solitary confinement. Coyte said Slevin did receive a brief competency hearing a year into his imprisonment, but the case against the man never proceeded.

After 22 months as a pre-trial detainee, Slevin was released and the charges dismissed. He then filed suit, claiming his rights of due process were violated since he was not given a hearing before being placed in solitary confinement.

Photos taken before and after his confinement show dramatic appearance changes. The plaintiff said things were so bad he was forced to pull his own tooth while in custody, and that his pleas for help were dismissed.

In pre-trial motions, the county denied "that there was lack of medical care. For most of the other allegations, officials either denied them or said they were "without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief" of the veracity of the claims.

The defendants also said Slevin waited too late to file his suit, and that as government employees, county officials deserved immunity from liability, believing they acted in good faith as to Slevin's treatment in custody.

The county had refused any public comment before the trial. There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from county officials.

Slevin's legal team said the county in recent days had offered to settle the case for $2 million, just before the jury went to consider a verdict and award.

Coyte told CNN he hopes Slevin's court victory will send a message throughout the state for more humane treatment of inmates, especially those with mental or physical issues.

Slevin continues to have serious medical issues, and is fighting lung cancer, his lawyer said.

The case is Slevin v. Board of County Commissioners of Dona Ana County (1:08-cv-01185).

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