County settles jail lawsuit for $1.6 million

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A federal lawsuit filed more than a year ago against the Valencia County Detention Center by an inmate has been settled this week for $1.6 million.

A federal lawsuit filed more than a year ago against the Valencia County Detention Center by an inmate has been settled this week for $1.6 million.

In July 2009, Jan Green was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and booked into the county jail.

Her attorney, Albuquerque civil rights lawyer Matthew Coyte, said in the lawsuit that upon entering VCDC, Green's mental illness was "so obvious a note in her jail file describes her suffering from hallucinations and recommends she see a psychiatrist as quickly as possible."

The lawsuit alleged that during her time in the detention center, among other things, Green was denied medical care, mental health visits and was kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

In addition to the monetary award, the settlement lays out operational changes that must take place at the jail.

County attorney David Pato said the requirements of the settlement are already in place, and have been since before the settlement was finalized.

"These policy changes ensure they will never be able to house someone in the cell they had Ms. Green in for longer than 48 hours. She was in there for eight months," Coyte said. "It was a horrific disgusting place to be."

Warden Joe Chavez said when Green became disruptive, she was removed from the women's general population and put in a cell near the booking and records area in the jail.

"Officers made it a point to check on her, I would talk with her two or three times a week," Chavez said. "One of our female staff members had established a good relationship with her, so she could get Ms. Green to leave her cell so we could clean it and she could shower."

Some of the more disturbing allegations made by Green were that the jail staff did not provide her with adequate hygiene products when she was menstruating and did not allow her to shower.

In an interview just after the lawsuit was filed in December 2012, Chavez said they provided Green with feminine hygiene products and the opportunity to shower; however they could not force her to use the products nor bathe.

Chavez said he and his staff went above and beyond to get help for Green while she was at VCDC, going so far as to contact the judge assigned her case directly and ask for a speedy trial.

"We contacted her attorney, who really did not visit her at all, reached out to the judge. I kept in contact with her daughter by email, since she didn't live in the area," Chavez said. "We paid a lot of extra attention to her. I think what hurt us, the only thing we failed to do, was properly document each and every time she was seen by the medical department, for either a health issue or for mental health.

"What really disappoints me is, she was in here prior to me running the jail. The courts knew she was mentally ill and kept putting her back in."

Other terms of the settlement agreement include guaranteeing a psychiatric visit to any inmate held in the cell within 48 hours and that inmates put in administrative segregation will receive a psychiatric review at least every seven days.

"They didn't have that before," Coyte said. "We feel confident that this is a start, but by no means an end to this horrific practice — the use of solitary confinement."

Coyte said the attorneys involved in drafting the settlement will have to be relied upon to make sure the policy changes are made.

Coyte said hopefully the "substantial financial settlement" would also act as a deterrent to keep this kind of treatment of an inmate from happening again in any jail in the state.

"This is an ongoing battle, not just in Valencia County but in jails throughout New Mexico," he said. "It is a pervasive problem and the people who run them know it, too."

Coyte was the same attorney who won a $22 million jury award in 2012 for Stephen Slevin after the Doña Ana County jail kept him confined to solitary for nearly 22 months.

Coyte said Green is "living day by day" and improving as time goes by.

"She still suffers from PTSD directly relating to her incarceration in inhumane conditions," he said.

The settlement was the result of county's insurance carrier's "aggressive position to settle," said Pato. The county is insured by the New Mexico Association of Counties.

"What this reflects, is the association reviewed the case and made a decision based on the facts presented," Pato said. "Our investigation showed we have a really caring, supportive staff who care about the inmates mental health and well being. We take mental health issues very seriously."

After all the insurance claims are settled for this year, including this one, the AoC will determine whether the county's' insurance premiums will increase, Pato said.

Chavez said he would have rather gone to trial with the case than settle. He is concerned a settlement sends the message that the jail was in the wrong.

"Any time there is a settlement, there is the perception that you must have done something wrong. I adamantly deny any of the accusations in the suit. Even though we are a jail, we have some mental health care, but we are not a mental health facility," the warden said. "The population of mental health patients in jails is growing. Mental health and medical are the biggest expenses for facilities. But they are still not going to be adequate just because we are not mental health facilities.

"I'm not naive. Was everything done perfectly? Probably not. We did the best we could and everything was done for Ms. Green's welfare."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.