Prisoner Left in Solitary 2 Years Receives $15.5M Settlement

PHOTO: Stephen Slevin, left, in Aug. 2005, at the time of his arrest for drunken driving, and right, in May 2007, shortly before being released from solitary confinement.
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A man who was driving across country in 2005 and found himself thrown in a New Mexico jail for DWI, and then spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, has won $15.5 million in one of the largest prisoner civil rights awards in U.S. history.

Stephen Slevin, 59, was depressed in 2005 when he decided to drive across the country, with no particular goal or destination in mind, his lawyer Matt Coyte told ABCNews.com. After being pulled over in Dona Ana County, N.M., on Aug. 24 2005, Slevin was arrested on aggravated DWI charges, and for driving a vehicle that he did not own. He was brought into the Dona Ana County Detention Center.

From there, his long nightmare began.

"To find out what happened was difficult," Coyte said. "His mental health was so compromised from his time in jail, he had very little memory of his stay there."

By piecing together documents and records available from the lockup, Coyte said he discovered that after his arrest, Slevin was soon placed in padded cell in the jail's floor, naked with only a suicide smock on, as what Coyte believes was a form of detoxification.

The cell was like a "horrific version of a drunk tank," Coyte said.

Slevin then went into medical observation for a few weeks. He was placed in an observation cell with its own shower, toilet and a window so he could be observed. From there they transferred him to solitary confinement, where he would spend the next 22 months.

Dona Ana County's policy, Coyte said, is to put all prisoners deemed mentally ill into solitary confinement. Jess Williams, the Doña Ana County director of public information, said that's just not true.

"That's not correct, that's never been the policy," he told ABCNews.com "He was placed in administrative segregation at his request. He did not want to be in the general population."

Doña Ana County released a statement in January stating that Slevin was offered an opportunity to join the general population in a cell block with a day room, but refused, and the only option was to place him in one of the facility's 28 administrative segregation cells.

Over the first three months in the segregation cell, Slevin was able to write letters, some of which were to his sister, others of which were what Coyte called very polite correspondences asking his jailers for assistance -- stating that he needed medical attention, that he couldn't sleep, or he was starting to have panic attacks.

In January 2006, after three months in solitary confinement, Slevin became delirious.

"He was incapable of writing at that point … You can see he was shaking in his writing. What he needs is to get out of that cell," Coyte said.

At that point he sat back and forth and began rocking. From January 2006 until May of 2007, "he just rocked back and forth," Coyte said.

Slevin would only get out of his small cell at first, a few times every month. After that, there were periods up to four months when he did not leave. Though he was given food and medication during these periods, he was not bathing. He had fungus on his skin, Coyte said. And his teeth were rotting.

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