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Letters from solitary confinement reveal DWI man's despair

A man in New Mexico has been awarded $22 million after being tossed in solitary confinement for 2 years following a DWI arrest. KOB-TV's Marissa Torres reports.

A man arrested for driving while intoxicated and then forced into solitary confinement for two years tried to get help by writing to the jail's nurse, but the only response he got was a dose of sedatives, his lawyer said.

Stephen Slevin, 57, was arrested in August 2005 in New Mexico’s Dona Ana County, charged with aggravated driving while under the influence and possession of a stolen vehicle, although Slevin maintains the car was lent to him by a friend. On Tuesday, a federal jury in Sante Fe awarded him $22 million in damages for enduring inhumane conditions in the Dona Ana County jail, which he emerged from "hollow," Matt Coyte, his lawyer, told msnbc.com on Wednesday.

Slevin had one medical examination after being arrested and was labeled suicidal, his lawyer said. He was jailed in lieu of posting a $40,000 bond.

“They put him in a padded cell for three days, but they never give him any treatment; their policy is to then just put them in solitary” if there are mental health issues, Coyte told msnbc.com Wednesday.

Coyte described Slevin in court documents as suffering with lifelong mental illness. He told msnbc.com that at the time of his arrest, Slevin had been depressed, and was borrowing a friend’s car because he wanted to get out of Las Cruces, N.M., where he had been living at the time.

He was physically healthy, but desperate to get treatment for his depression that he had been suffering with prior to being in solitary confinement - a cell with no natural light that prisoners are in 23 hours a day, although often times, guards failed to even grant Slevin his one hour of daily recreation time, his lawyer told msnbc.com.

Slevin sent more than a dozen letters to the jail nurse starting days after he was arrested, NBC affiliate KOB.com reported.

“I have not slept in days,” says one letter from Sept. 4, 2005, a couple weeks into solitary confinement. “I’m in a deep depression.” The letter also mentions his lack of appetite.

His mental decline
Two months later, KOB.com reported, Slevin wrote a letter again pleading for help, saying, “My dreams have been both weird and bizarre.”

By the end of November 2005, he wrote, “I’m afraid to close my eyes.”

Coyte, his lawyer, told KOB that if Slevin got any response at all, it was just to up his sedatives.

“He referred to a ‘Dr. Don’ [in the letters],” Coyte told KOB.com. “There was no doctor looking after him. There was a nurse, the nurse practitioner.”

But the so-called nurse practitioner only had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and no actual medical qualifications, KOB reported.

After a few months, Slevin gave up, writing: “I don’t know how much longer I can go on.”

“That was when he fell into a delirium,” Coyte told KOB.com.

Meanwhile, correspondence with the outside world tapered off as well, Coyte told msnbc.com on Thursday.

“His sister was writing him letters and sending him money,” Coyte said. “She thought he would get out soon enough; she would send him small amounts of money every few weeks.”

But when she didn’t hear back from Slevin, she became concerned. She called the jail, Coyte said, but was not given much information.

“She had no idea the condition he was in,” he said. “She is on the other side of the country with limited means. She wrote letters and he responded at the beginning, but then he lost touch with her. If your family member doesn’t write back, you may feel like they don’t want to talk you anymore; it wouldn’t cross your mind that something like this was happening.”

It wouldn’t be until months later that Slevin’s sister, whose name and location Coyte did not give, found out what her brother was going through: Forced to pull out his own tooth because he was denied access to a dentist, he told reporters on Tuesday. Toenails curling around his foot because they were so long. Basically forgotten about in his dark cell for more than 22 months.

"[Jail guards were] walking by me every day, watching me deteriorate," Slevin told KOB.com. "Day after day after day, they did nothing, nothing at all, to get me any help."

Slevin’s sister and other family members actively fought for his release near the end of his detainment once they became aware of his plight, Coyte told msnbc.com Thursday.

“It was her and his aunt and various other family members who were calling legislators, calling county commissioners, saying, ‘Where’s my brother?’” he said.

'Deplorable' conditions
The answer, for most of his 22-month detainment, was that he was in “deplorable” conditions of his solitary “pod,” court documents state, except for a 14-day period in May 2007, when he was sent to New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., for a psychiatric review. He had lost a third of his body weight by that point, documents say, and had bed sores and a fungal infection on his skin.

“As your insanity builds, some people holler or throw feces out their cell doors,” Coyte said Wednesday. “Others rock back and forth under a blanket for a year or more, which is what my client did.”

At the Behavioral Health Institute, Slevin was able to shower and to shave his beard, which had grown long and scraggly during his time in solitary, Coyte said. His mood improved. But after two weeks there, he was sent back to his solitary pod in jail for another month, at which point his mental state deteriorated to the point where he was deemed unfit to participate in his defense, and all charges against him were ultimately dismissed. He was released on June 25, 2007.

It's not clear why he was sent back to solitary after his stint in the mental health institute.

Dona Ana County officials were tight-lipped about the case, refusing to answer questions about whether any jail employees were reprimanded or fired over Slevin's treatment.

"We do not discuss personnel issues," Jess Williams, Dona Ana County's public information director, told msnbc.com on Wednesday.

Williams also wouldn't comment on whether the $22 million the county was ordered to pay would come from taxpayer money, saying only, "Dona Ana County will appeal the verdict." 

Coyte sued the Dona Ana County Board of County Commissioners, the County Detention Center, and the jail director and former medical director in December 2008. According to court documents, the county jail’s former medical director, Daniel Zemek prescribed “complicated psychotropic medications” to Slevin without ever seeing him, and renewed prescriptions for him for at least 10 months without an in-person visit. Zemek left the county jail but an adequate replacement for him wasn’t provided, the court documents allege, so jail director Chris Barela continued to have Zemek prescribe medication to Slevin, despite not treating him.

John W. Caldwell, the defendants’ attorney, did not return a phone call from msnbc.com on Thursday.

Coyte, Slevin’s attorney, said greed on the county’s part was partially to blame.

“Talk to the [Dona Ana] County Commissioners who were around in 2000 to 2004 who knew this stuff was going on, and didn’t care,” he said. “Another side to this case is this jail was built to make money housing federal detainees. This is a border town. There are a lot of federal detainees from immigration issues, and the jail charges the federal government a particular amount of money for each detainee.”

Slevin was a county inmate.

“Federal inmates got better care than state inmates,” he said. “There would be better psychiatric care for the federal inmates than for the state or county inmates.”

Slevin will take lifelong medication for his PTSD, although he continues to have support from his sister, Coyte said. Court records show he now lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

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