by Daniel A. Rosen |
An attorney with a small private practice in Albuquerque has blazed an unconventional path to reformng the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico. According to a recent profile in Rolling Stone magazine, Matthew Coyte has successfully sued local corrections departments over abuses of the practice, and he’s won millions in damages for his clients.
In 2008, the first of those clients came to him after almost two years of isolation in a padded Doña Ana County jail isolation cell. When Stephen Slevin was booked into the jail in 2005, he was healthy but suffered from depression. By the end of the ordeal, he’d lost a third of his body weight and was legally incompetent to stand trial.
Coyte says he didn’t realize the horrors of solitary confinement until he met Slevin, even after spending years as a public defender. “[I]f you step back and take more critical look, you start to realize that this is actually something unconscionable, something dramatically inhumane.”
With Coyte’s help, Slevin filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against not just the jail, but also two staff member and the County Board of Commissioners. Slevin rejected the jail’s settlement offer of just $25,000, and ultimately won a jury verdict of $22 million. During the trial, Slevin learned he had late-stage cancer, and he’s since died.
Since then, Coyte’s small team has won dozens of solitary confinement cases against jails, with multi-million dollar settlements in many. “If we won these cases and didn’t hit them hard in the pocketbook, no one would care,” said Coyte. He’s also successfully sued
Curry County, Eddy County, and Otero County.
The financial impact of the lawsuits is straining county budgets and spurring reforms. In 2019, statewide legislation was passed reforming the use of solitary, largely due to Coyte’s lawsuits and ACLU advocacy. It requires jails and prisons to report on their use of solitary, and bans the use of the practice for children, pregnant women, and the mentally ill.
Barron Jones, of the state ACLU agreed that the lawsuits contributed to the push for reform. “I don’t know how successful we would have been in passing our solitary confinement bill here in New Mexico if it wasn’t for [the Slevin] verdict,” he said, also noting that sometimes, “the only thing that gets people to take action is money.”
In New Mexico, the state association of counties manages an insurance pool that covers their law enforcement activities. But the association only pays awards up to $2 million, leaving counties to foot the bill for the rest. And the high number of lawsuits has strained the pool, spurring rising premiums for localities and ultimately, the loss of pool insurance for counties that get sued too often. That can mean counties have to seek more expensive coverage, and it’s become an incentive to change their solitary policies in local lockups.
A 2016 study from UCLA also suggested that insurance pools “are a promising source of risk management pressure,” as they can “impose significant financial burdens on law enforcement agencies.” In other words, inhumane mistreatment of inmates can become much too costly for county jails, as more suits are filed.
Jessica Sandoval, of the Unlock the Box Campaign to End Solitary Confinement, sees Coyte’s strategy as powerful and says that “more people should be looking at this kind of litigation.”
In 2019, one self-reported study estimated that 55,000-62,500 inmates had spent the previous 15 days in solitary. People living in solitary confinement – isolated for 22 hours a day or more – often develop severe psychological problems, in addition to physical suffering and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. And unlike a sentence handed down by a judge or jury, time in solitary is handed down by corrections officials, often as sanctions for minor rule infractions.
Solitary “creates more dangers, and more crime, and more violence, rather than preventing it,” Coyte said. “Ultimately, it’s toxic. And so, as a law enforcement tool, it’s kind of ridiculous.”