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KUNM Reporting Series: Solitary Confinement

The use of solitary confinement on people with mental illness is costing counties millions of dollars. The most famous example is Stephen Slevin, who was awarded $22 million after spending nearly two years in solitary in the Doña Ana County jail. KUNM'sPublic Health New Mexico Project developed a three-part series on the use of segregation around the state, looking at jails, prisons, mental health and incarceration, and recidivism. 


Stephen Slevin

Part 1: Sometimes inmates spend months—even years—in isolation. Stephen Slevin was awarded $22 million after he was put into segregation for nearly two years in the Doña Ana County Detention Center. He was arrested in 2005 and charged with DWI. He was thrown into a tiny seg cell, where he spent 22 months without ever seeing a judge. The DWI charges against him were eventually dropped.

According to the lawsuit, he had a mental illness when he was put in solitary confinement. He deteriorated physically and mentally over those years alone, and even had to pull out one of his own rotting teeth.

Tim Gardner of Disability Rights New Mexico said one of the big problems with the system is that jails and prisons have become the primary treatment centers for mental illness in New Mexico and elsewhere. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s evidence of a failure in our community-based mental health treatment system.” Read more...



Jan Greene's cell

Part 2: Jan Green isn’t sure of cell 135C’s exact dimensions at the Valencia County Detention Center. It was small.“It was a shower stall, but I couldn’t use the shower,” she said. “It had the steel toilet and sink combination. It had a cement L-shaped bench and two drains. It had a steel door with a window that looked out into the walkway. “

She saw those objects every day all day during her months-long stints in solitary.

She slept on a mat on the floor. She remembers that it was cold in there, the lights were kept on around the clock, and she couldn’t get the water running properly. The out-of-use showerhead dripped. All the time. “I remember being very ill,” she said. “I would pretend or whatever having a friend there for company.” Read more...



Part 3: Nataura Powdrell remembers one inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center who refused to take his meds. When the jail’s mental health staff tried to talk about it, he explained he didn’t want to become stable. Because then he’d be released from jail.

Then, he knew from experience, he would run through the 30-day supply of medication that the jail provides to exiting inmates. He would have a psychotic break. And he’d go find heroin so he could get comfortable with the voices in his head.

“It’s a catch 22 for him,” Powdrell, spokesperson for MDC, explained. “There needs to be somewhere between jail and the street that these people can get the appropriate help.” Read more...

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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