A 51-year-old mentally ill grandmother recently secured a $US1.6 million settlement from a New Mexico county that she says jailed her for more than two years, much of which she spent in an isolation cell without a bed.
That grandmother, Jan Green, has bipolar disorder and was charged with two minor incidents of domestic violence — both of which were ultimately dropped, her lawyer says.
While the broad strokes of Green’s case sound awful, the details she and her lawyer allege are by turns stomach-turning and heartbreaking.
Green was allegedly kept in a roughly 7-by-8-foot solitary confinement cell for at least eight months, sleeping on a mat on the floor and bleeding on herself because she had been denied sanitary napkins.
Green’s bipolar disorder, which can cause extreme shifts in mood and psychosis, allegedly got worse in solitary. She was never treated by a psychiatrist while she was in the Valencia County Detention Center (VCDC).
“I am not a fan of New Mexico,” Green, who has since moved to Minnesota, told me over the phone. “The horrific things that I went through there still haunt me.”
‘I Keep Coming Across Cases Like This’
One would like to think Green’s story is rare because the allegations are so unsettling. But Green’s case is by no means an isolated incident, according to her lawyer, Matthew Coyte.
“I keep coming across cases like this,” Coyte told me, “and it’s often involving people who are mentally ill, at least in New Mexico.”
Green was held in the VCDC as a pre-trial detainee, meaning she had been charged with domestic violence and was awaiting trial. However, she was found incompetent to stand trial, according to the December 2012 complaint she filed in federal court, hence her lengthy pre-trial detention.
People like Green are “unable to advocate themselves, and the jail takes over, and they disappear for years at a time,” Coyte told me. “Is it uncommon? Sadly it’s all too common.”
Another mentally ill inmate in New Mexico, Stephen Slevin, was also represented by Coyte in a suit claiming he spent 22 months in solitary confinement for a drunk driving charge that was later dismissed. A federal jury awarded him $US22 million, but he later agreed to settle the case for $US15.5 million. (Plaintiffs sometimes settle cases they win in order to avoid appeals.)
“It’s all very similar to Mr. Slevin’s case, just a different county [and] a different jail,” Slevin told me. ” … I have other cases, too. It’s not just the one. It’s not just the two. It’s lots of them.”
A Productive Life Despite A History Of Mental Illness
Green lived a relatively stable life despite her bipolar disorder.
She was never arrested or put in jail, according to her lawyer. She worked full-time in computer tech support, trained and boarded horses, and successfully raised her four children. However, her mental health began to deteriorate in July 2009, and she was accused of hitting her husband with a fan. (It’s not clear what caused her mental health to decline, though some research suggests bipolar disorder can have a second “peak” in mid-life.)
She was arrested twice on suspicion of domestic violence that summer. The first time, she was released after a few weeks. The second incident was in September 2009, and she didn’t get out of jail until February 2012 when that charge was finally dismissed.
‘See Psychiatrist ASAP’
The day after Green’s first arrest, a jailhouse medical record noted that she should “see psychiatrist ASAP” and that she was hallucinating. Green was never treated by a psychiatrist during her first brief stint in VCDC or during her longer one that began two months later.
The jail says it made “many efforts to convince Ms. Green to accept treatment at the facility,” according to a prepared statement provided to Business Insider. The jail said the medical contractor it previously worked with failed to document these many attempts to treat Green, though.
“Our mistake was the lack of documentation showing that, you know, we actually did provide very good care for her,” the jail’s warden, Joe Chavez, told the local TV station KOB4.
However, the VCDC didn’t have a psychiatrist available to work with the inmates through its medical contractor, Brandon Huss, a lawyer for the jail told me. While that contractor did have a psychiatric nurse practitioner available, it was only a nurse who ever had contact with Green, according to Huss.
And the isolation of solitary confinement just made her sicker, she claims.
A ‘Very Cold’ Room With A Mat On The Floor
Green was immediately assigned to a solitary confinement cell when her second stint in jail started, according to her complaint. For the next two-and-a-half years, she would spend a significant amount of time there, though there are conflicting reports about exactly how long.
Her lawyer, Matthew Coyte, says he was able to obtain documentation showing she’d spent a little more than 8 months in solitary, though he believes she was in there longer. (Green was briefly shipped to two other jails, where she was not in solitary, but she spent the bulk of her incarceration at VCDC.)
VCDC acknowledged that it periodically put her in solitary confinement (also known as an “observation” cell) because the jail believed keeping her there at times was in the best interest of her and the other inmates.
“Here, the detention center had little choice but to periodically house Ms. Green in an observation cell for her own safety as well as the safety of other inmates,” the jail said in its statement. “Ms. Green was not housed in observation or segregation for years on end but rather placed there for periods of time when, because of her condition, her safety and the safety of others was at risk.”
While Green’s condition allegedly necessitated her segregation from the other inmates, the very act of isolating a mentally ill person could exacerbate their mental illness.
The ACLU has documented several instances of mentally ill inmates who got sicker in solitary confinement, and that was allegedly the case with Green.
“It was a very cold room, very small,” she said. “… It was very lonely, and I read my Bible a lot.” Somtimes, Green told me, she believed an old friend was in the cell with her, and she would sit and talk to him.
Green’s lawsuit further alleges that the jail would deny her feminine hygiene products, causing her to bleed on herself several months in a row. Her cell allegedly became squalid, as dirty food trays and trash accumulated in her tiny living space. The jail “absolutely denies” Green’s claims about unsanitary conditions or mistreatment, according to its prepared statement.
Her lawyer alleges she was in a sorry state when she finally got out of jail, though. After more than two years as a pre-trial detainee, Green was finally transferred to the New Mexico Behavioural Health Institute on Dec. 11, 2011. When she got there, she was described as “thin,” “unkempt,” “disheveled,” and showing signs of “psychosis,” according to her complaint.
Green started taking medication to treat her psychosis, and within five days her delusional thinking stopped. “It really brought me to reality, the medication did,” Green told me over the phone. “And it got me out of the situation, in my mind, that I was having.”
By February 1, 2012, she was declared mentally competent to stand trial. A judge dismissed the criminal charges against her and released her from jail about a week later.
‘Holding Facilities For America’s Mentally Ill’
It seems obvious that Green never belonged in jail in the first place, let alone for more than two years. The jail itself acknowledged that it wasn’t the best place for the mother of four.
“It is unfortunate that, because we do not have enough beds in treatment facilities in this country, that detention centres have become holding facilities for America’s mentally ill; as such they are put in the untenable position of holding mentally ill people with little choice of what to do with them,” the jail said.
Indeed, there has been a shortage of long-stay mental health facilities in America ever since the so-called de-institutionalism movement of the 1960s. The situation appears to be particularly bad in New Mexico. A 2012 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center listed the state as one where there was a “critical shortage” of beds. That report found that New Mexico had reduced its number of psychiatric beds by 60% between 2005 and 2010. In fact, the facility where Green was finally transferred is the only state-owned and operated psychiatric hospital in New Mexico.
While that hospital eventually helped with her psychosis, she says the jail left lasting psychological scars. “I have developed a fear of doors locking behind me now,” she told me, adding that she has post traumatic stress disorder and is a weaker person than she once was.
When asked if she was angry, she said she didn’t quite know how to answer that question.
“I am very forgiving. I guess I am more hurt than angry,” she said. “I feel like the whole system there just let me down.”
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