KHQ.COM - A man who spent 22 long months in solitary confinement in a New Mexico jail, neglected to the point where he was forced to pull out his own tooth because he said he wasn't allowed to see a dentist, will receive $15.5 million for the ordeal.
The settlement with Dona Ana County, N.M., falls short of the $22 million that Stephen Slevin, 59, and his attorney had asked for, but is still one of the largest prisoner civil rights payouts in U.S. history.
"His mental health has been severely compromised from the time he was in that facility. That continues to be the same. No amount of money will bring back what they took away from him," Matt Coyte, Slevin's Albuquerque-based attorney, said on Wednesday. "But it's nice to be able to get him some money so he can improve where he is in life and move on."
Slevin's story of inhumane treatment in the Dona Ana County Jail, where he was incarcerated from 2005 to 2007 — which he said included his toenails growing so long that they curled around his foot, and fungus festering on his skin because he was deprived of showers — first received publicity last January, when he was awarded the $22 million.
Dona Ana County had been appealing the verdict ever since, refusing to pay Slevin.
But the legal battle ended Tuesday with the $15.5 million settlement, a number decided on in court mediation, according to Jess Williams, Dona Ana County's public information director.
An initial payment of $6 million is expected to be wired to Slevin by the end of this week; he will receive the rest in installments in the following days.
For Slevin — who has lung cancer and has beaten doctors' odds for how long he would survive — the case was not about how much money he could make, his attorney said, but about getting recognition of how poorly he was treated and the scars he still has.
"He's had lots of difficulties over the years. I don't think he will stop having difficulties," Coyte said. "The courage he had in the trial was magnificent."
Slevin's mistreatment by Dona Ana County started the moment he was arrested back in August of 2005, his attorney told NBC News.
"He was driving through New Mexico and arrested for a DWI, and he allegedly was in a stolen vehicle. Well, it was a car he had borrowed from a friend; a friend had given him a car to drive across the country," Coyte said in an interview last January.
Slevin was depressed at the time, Coyte explained, and wanted to get out of New Mexico. Instead, he found himself in jail.
"When he gets put in the jail, they think he's suicidal, and they put him in a padded cell for three days, but never give him any treatment."
Nor did they give him a trial, Coyte said. Slevin said he never saw a judge during his time in confinement.
After three days in the padded cell, jail guards transferred Slevin into solitary confinement with no explanation.
"Their policy is to then just put them in solitary" if they appear to have mental health issues, Coyte told NBC News.
While in solitary confinement, a prisoner is entitled to one hour per day out of the cell, but often times, Slevin wasn't even granted that, Coyte said.
"Your insanity builds. Some people holler or throw feces out their cell doors," he said. "Others rock back and forth under a blanket for a year or more, which is what my client did."
By the time Slevin got out of jail, his hair was shaggy and overgrown, his beard long, and his face pale and sunken, a drastic contrast from the clean-shaven booking photo taken of him when he was arrested two years prior.
"Without that picture, we couldn't have gotten where we were," Coyte said of the lawsuit.
Coyte would not reveal where Slevin is living now for privacy reasons, only saying that he was not in New Mexico. He said he receives support from family and is "doing well" and "feels optimistic" about his treatment for cancer, which is unrelated to his time in jail and was not a factor in his trial.
Williams, the Dona Ana County public information officer, said no jail personnel have been fired over Slevin's treatment. However, he said, the jail has been working to improve the care it provides for mentally ill inmates.
"We now have dedicated wings of the building, one for males, one for females, that are totally dedicated for closely supervised mental health provisions and care," he said. "We've greatly expanded our medical area and we have contracted out at great expense for both medical and mental health services within the facility."
The budget at Dona Ana County Jail for medical care for inmates has nearly doubled since 2005, the year that Slevin was arrested, Williams said.
In a statement released by the Dona Ana County Commission, the jail also outlined plans for a crisis triage center "that will help stabilize mentally-ill persons who have committed no crimes but who represent a danger to themselves or others in the eyes of law-enforcement professionals."
But for Coyte, Slevin's attorney, there's still one more change that needs to be made: Dona Ana County Jail's warden.
"If you were in the trial and heard what the person who ran the facility said, you would be appalled," Coyte said. "I get lots of people [inmates] calling from that jail asking for help. Am I pleased that they've spent more money in the jail? Absolutely. I'm pleased that Mr. Slevin's case has made a difference in the jail. But the same people are running it, and it's an attitude of how you run something."