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Solitary confinement bill awaits governor's signature

Chris Ramirez
April 04, 2017 10:12 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- County jails across New Mexico have shelled out millions to people who they locked up in solitary confinement. In the last six years, counties have paid out more than $26 million to numerous former inmates. 

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It took years to get it done, but the New Mexico Legislature finally agreed rules should be put in place for the most severe punishment available to county jails and the state prison -- no isolation cells for children, pregnant women and anybody suffering from a mental illness.

Attorney Matt Coyte has represented a handful of inmates and has testified before lawmakers about the devastating effects of long-term isolation.

"We have a responsibility not to let this happen," he said.

This year, the legislature passed the measure and sent it to Gov. Susana Martinez's desk, and that's where it sits today. The governor has been silent on the bill so far, offering no indication whether she will sign it into law or not.

"We have a duty to do something about it," Coyte said. "It's no longer a question about we don't know it's happening and hide and put our heads in the sand. We know. Everyone knows."

4 Investigates has documented many of the cases. For example, the Curry County jail was sued last year after it locked up a 15-year-old boy with autism in solitary confinement for 11 months. That boy, Christian Cook had no outlet other than a journal.

"I don't know if I can live," he wrote. "I cry out to anyone who hears us. I still pray to God. I'm scared. I want my mommy."

The Doña Ana County jail kept Steven Slevin in solitary for two years. A jury awarded him $15 million, the highest award of a case like this in U.S. history. The isolation drove Slevin into a mental health breakdown.

In 2014, the Valencia County jail isolated a woman named Jan Green for months and then paid her $1.6 million in a legal settlement.

Click here to see a case chart and a full-sized map

"This is not the first. This is not the last," Coyte said. "There will be other cases until we put a law in effect that stops it."

So now it's up to Martinez to sign the bill. If she doesn't, attorneys like Coyte warn that New Mexico should prepare for more Jan Greens, Steven Slevins and Christian Cooks. And taxpayers should prepare to spend millions more on these legal cases.

Credits

Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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