New Mexico inmate left in solitary confinement for 2 years gets $15.5 million

A southern New Mexico county announced Tuesday that it reached a $15.5 million settlement to end the legal battle over the case of a man who was held in solitary confinement for two years without a trial and was so neglected that he took out his own tooth.

The settlement stems from mediation ordered by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Dona Ana County was appealing a lower court decision that upheld a $22 million judgment that was awarded last year to former county inmate Stephen R. Slevin.

That verdict was one of the largest federal civil rights settlements in history.

The county's board of commissioners said in a statement that it regrets the harm Slevin suffered while in custody between August 2005 and June 2007.

"Over the past seven years, Dona Ana County has made significant improvements to detention center staffing, training, facilities and procedures," the county said. "Dona Ana County is committed to ensuring consistent and appropriate treatment of every detainee in its care."

Slevin spent 22 months in the county jail after being arrested for drunken driving but was never convicted, according to his lawsuit.

Attorney Matthew Coyte said his client ended up in solitary confinement after someone noted he was suicidal. He was so neglected, Coyte said, he was left in his cell for months at a time, had untreated dental problems and toenails that grew so long they curled under his feet.

The county defended its operation of the jail following the initial $22 million judgment in January 2012. It argued that Slevin was offered a chance to join the general jail population, but declined and the only option was to place him in one of the jail's segregation cells.

The county had also said that Slevin's criminal history at the time of his arrest included out-of-state convictions for robberies, burglaries, drunken driving, receiving stolen property, firearms violations and, possession of drugs.

As part of the settlement, Slevin gave up the punitive damage award but did not give up any of his other compensation, Coyte said Tuesday. He called it a "long and hard fight."

"This settlement, although very large, does not give back to Mr. Slevin what was taken from him, but if it prevents others from enduring the pain and suffering he was subjected to, then the fight has been worthwhile," Coyte said. "I only hope they follow through on their promise to do better."

The county jail has an annual budget of $23.5 million, up from $12.7 million in 2006. Most of the money has gone toward improving staff, training and inmate access to care and services.

The county said that the settlement will not affect its long-term financial stability. The New Mexico Association of Counties will pay $6 million of the settlement and the county will pay the rest out of its cash reserves.

Less interest from those reserves, however, will require "careful financial management," the county said.

The commissioners took into consideration the risks of continuing the legal battle, as well as the potential costs of the $22 million jury verdict. With interest and attorney fees, the county said it would have not been able to bear that burden.

"While we believe the Slevin award was excessive, we respect our judicial system and the role of juries to award damages," the county said. "In the wake of this large settlement, we can say definitely that we have learned from the past. We can also say with confidence that we are leading the way for the future."