Inside One Lawyer’s Quest to End Solitary Confinement

Katie Rose Quandt
·13 min read

In 2008, Matthew Coyte, an attorney with a tiny private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was approached by a potential client. Stephen Slevin had spent nearly two years in solitary confinement in Doña Ana County Detention Center, where he developed fungal infections and bedsores, removed his own aching tooth, suffered deteriorating mental illness and descended into a delirium. Coyte took one look at the transformation between Slevin’s booking photo and release photo — during which time his hair and beard had grown long, matted, and unkempt — and took the case.

“Those two pictures were so dramatically different,” recalls Coyte. “It demonstrated what horrors had been wreaked upon him.”

Coyte had worked for years as a public defender in New Mexico, but says he didn’t realize the extent and horrors of solitary confinement until he met Slevin. “I would meet people in red jumpsuits behind a steel door and talk to them through a hole in the door. Like that was normal,” says Coyte. “And that was what I was trained to do as a public defender, and you didn’t really question it. But if you step back and take a more critical look, you start to realize that this is actually something unconscionable, something dramatically inhumane.”

Slevin had been booked into the jail in 2005 on charges of driving while intoxicated and receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, both of which were ultimately dismissed. He was in his early fifties, and suffered from depression but was physically healthy and well-nourished, according to court documents. But after spending most of his 22 months in jail in a padded solitary confinement cell — which he alleged was routine treatment for people with mental illness — he lost one-third of his body weight and was deemed legally incompetent to stand trial.

It is nearly impossible for people to seek justice for mistreatment when they are behind bars. The 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) instructs courts to throw out federal lawsuits from incarcerated people unless they have exhausted the facility’s cumbersome and often unfair grievance process. And there is a $400 federal filing fee that incarcerated people are required to pay, in installments if necessary — even though incarcerated workers often make less than $1 an hour. Many state courts have similar rules and fees.

Even after being released, when PLRA barriers no longer apply, many formerly incarcerated people have a hard time finding attorneys willing to take their cases. “We’re taught as lawyers that you get a person who looks good, who’s articulate, who comes into court and explains their case,” Coyte says. “The big pushback from lawyers is, ‘Well, I can’t get money for a prisoner.’”

Coyte and Slevin proved otherwise. They filed a federal civil rights suit against the county board of commissioners, the jail, and two staff members, alleging violations of Slevin’s civil and Constitutional rights. They declined Doña Ana County’s $25,000 settlement offer, and after a dramatic trial — in the midst of which Slevin learned he had advanced-stage cancer — a jury awarded $22 million, one of the largest amounts ever awarded in a federal civil rights case involving incarceration. (After continued legal battles, Slevin accepted a decreased settlement of $15.5 million.)

“It wasn’t about money to this guy,” Coyte says of Slevin, who has since died of cancer. “It was about having people say what happened to him in front of a jury, publicly, and be held accountable.”

In the years since, Coyte’s team (consisting of just himself, an associate attorney, and a paralegal) has won settlements in dozens of solitary confinement cases against local jails throughout New Mexico. In 2017, for instance, George Abila settled for $1.9 million, after spending six months in solitary in Eddy County Detention Center, where he developed sores from sleeping on the floor and was given only a drain for a toilet. The mother of Christian Cook, an autistic 15-year-old with mental illness and behavioral issues, settled for $1.8 million with Curry County in 2018 after her son spent months in solitary in Curry County Juvenile Detention Center, where he was denied treatment for his deteriorating mental health and physical ailments, received little education or recreation, and began talking about suicide.

But Coyte is winning more than justice and blockbuster awards for his clients — he’s stumbled onto an effective reform strategy. Some New Mexico counties are straining under the financial burden of these lawsuits, and their statewide insurer is pushing reform as a loss-prevention measure. Coyte’s string of victories and hefty settlements also helped lead to a reform bill on solitary passed in 2019.

“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,” says Barron Jones, senior policy strategist at ACLU New Mexico. “Unfortunately sometimes, you know, the only thing that gets people to take action is money.”

“If we won these cases and didn’t hit them hard in the pocketbook, no one would care,” says Coyte. “You would think that the revelation of the appalling conditions in a public forum might make people change their ways. But I didn’t find that to be the case. It was the pocketbook that got the movement in the legislature going.”

Solitary confinement is usually defined as isolating individuals for 22 hours a day or more. The United Nations considers solitary to be torture when used longer than 15 days, or for people with mental illness, those who are pregnant, children, and other vulnerable groups.

Despite its overwhelming harms — physical suffering, mental anguish, increased rates of self-harm and suicide, shortened life spans after release — solitary is used regularly in jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities throughout the United States. Unlike prison or jail sentences, which are determined in public court by a judge or jury, stints in solitary are handed out by officials within a correctional facility. And since prison and jail practices are notoriously opaque, solitary usage is impossible for advocates on the outside to accurately track.

In one 2019 snapshot estimate (based on data self-reported by departments of corrections), between 55,000 and 62,500 people in state and federal prisons around the country had spent the previous 15 days in solitary. And an estimated 20,102 people were in solitary on a given day in 2012 in county and city jails, which generally detain people who are awaiting trial (often because they can’t afford bail) or are serving short sentences for minor offenses. Black people, already incarcerated at highly disproportionate rates, are more likely than white people to be put in solitary confinement.

People living in solitary cells, which are usually smaller than a parking space, can develop psychological symptoms like hypersensitivity to stimuli, panic attacks, and paranoia. The effects of solitary often haunt people even after release, as demonstrated by the tragic death of Kalief Browder, who died by suicide after spending two years in solitary on Rikers Island when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, a charge that was dismissed.

“[Solitary] creates more dangers, and more crime, and more violence, rather than preventing it,” says Coyte. “Ultimately, it’s toxic. And so, as a law enforcement tool, it’s kind of ridiculous.”

A 2016 UN report comparing solitary confinement policies in eight U.S. states and 23 nations found that U.S. jurisdictions didn’t put limits on how many continuous days solitary could be used, noting, “many of these laws are written such that prisoners could be held in solitary confinement indefinitely.”

“The U.S. is definitely a global outlier in its use of solitary,” says Jessica Sandoval, national campaign strategist for the Unlock the Box Campaign to End Solitary Confinement. “It’s used for everything. It’s a management tool. People often think that solitary is reserved for the ‘worst of the worst,’ whatever that means. And the reality is that most people who are in solitary are there on very minor write-up issues.” Corrections officers can put someone in solitary, for example, for having “contraband” like too many envelopes, or for not quickly following an order, Sandoval says.

Coyte’s work is part of a larger solitary reform movement that has grown significantly over the past decade, initially mobilized by the notorious case of the “Angola 3,” three Black activists who spent decades in solitary confinement cells in Louisiana’s Angola prison.

Despite some positive reforms, solitary remains pervasive, and advocates often come up against resistance from correctional institutions. Sandoval also cautions that as jails and prisons respond to Covid-19 with “lockdowns” limiting people’s movement, solitary confinement could become more normalized and institutionalized. “Our fear is that we’re going to see 10 years of reforms being undone,” she says.

Solitary confinement is particularly damaging for people with mental illness. But prisons and jails have become de facto mental health institutions: In 2005 (the most recent year data was collected), 56 percent of people in state prisons and 64 percent in local jails had mental illnesses of some sort. People with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than in a hospital bed, even though correctional facilities are drastically unqualified to provide mental health support.

Coyte’s client Jan Green was booked into Valencia County Detention Center in mid-2009 on domestic violence charges that were later dropped. Although her intake jail file noted that she suffered hallucinations and recommended that she see a psychiatrist, according to court records, Green was instead placed in a solitary confinement cell, where her mental health deteriorated.

“I just remember a leaky faucet above my head,” recalls Green. Her “cell” was in fact a converted shower room. “It was a toilet, it was a sink, it was a bench, and there was a shower in there, and that’s all it was,” she says. “It had a door and they would pass the meal tray through that. The toilet didn’t flush very well and they didn’t let me clean very often.”

For “huge periods of time” over the next two-and-a-half years, according to her legal complaint, Green, then in her mid-forties, was prevented from leaving her cell or seeing natural sunlight. She was denied sufficient menstrual supplies and toilet paper, and her sock rotted into an open wound on her foot. Some staff members allegedly taunted and punished her for exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. Her adult children begged jail officials to intervene. But as her incarceration dragged on, Green was repeatedly put back in solitary confinement.

“I knew the jail keepers that might give me a blanket, because my blankets would get wet because of the shower,” she recalls. “There were some that were still human, and some that were just downright nasty.”

Green was released in February 2012, suffering from PTSD. With Coyte’s help, they brought a federal civil rights suit against the county and reached a $1.6 million settlement. “I’m living on it right now. I bought a home, I bought a car,” says Green, who moved closer to family out of state. “I’m well fed and well cared for. It was justice,” she says of the settlement.

As of last year, thanks in part to Coyte, New Mexico jails and prisons are no longer allowed to place people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement. In his role as then-president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, he worked with the ACLU and other advocates to craft state legislation, signed in 2019, that requires jails and prisons to report their use of solitary confinement to the government, and bans solitary nearly entirely for children, women who are pregnant, and people with serious mental illness. It also requires that when a privately operated prison or private health care provider settles with an individual, the settlement amount must be made public. Advocates wanted the law to limit the days someone could spend in solitary, but that reform was not included in the final version.

“We’ll be seeing how this pans out,” Coyte says. “Because it’s one thing to have a law. The next thing is what the people in charge do with it. And they can avoid the law by hiding [solitary] or manipulating it. Or they could embrace the law by making a cultural change. It’s a bit early yet to know which way it’s going to go.”

But after years of handling solitary lawsuits, Coyte says he has seen a decrease in some of the most appalling cases. “I think the reforms that we’ve made have gone a long way to remove some of the horrific facts that have been associated with solitary,” he says. “I’m not saying they’ve gotten rid of solitary, but they’ve shaved off the horrific-fact aspect of it.”

Change has come about in part because public coffers simply can’t afford to keep doling out big settlements. In New Mexico, most counties insure their law enforcement activities through a pool managed by the New Mexico Association of Counties (NMAC). After losing or settling a lawsuit, a county pays a deductible and NMAC covers the award, up to a current cap of $2 million. (Doña Ana County, for example, paid $9.5 million of Slevin’s settlement after NMAC paid its share). But the high number of lawsuits strains the pool, causing county premiums to rise. Following lawsuits in Otero County — including a $2.9 million settlement with Coyte’s client Jerome Gonzales in 2015 — the county lost access to the NMAC law enforcement insurance pool, and had to seek costly outside insurance.

NMAC also developed a jail accreditation program in 2010. Although it doesn’t limit the time someone can spend in solitary, the program does require regular review of people in solitary confinement, as well as minimum conditions to be met. So far, nine counties have become accredited, in exchange for discounted premiums and access to additional insurance coverage.

NMAC’s efforts fit with the findings of a 2016 UCLA Law Review article, which suggests insurance pools can play a key role in whether civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement lead to actual reforms. “They are a promising source of risk management pressure,” the report notes. “They have access to claims information that can help identify areas of risk; they are unencumbered by political pressures not to criticize or compromise law enforcement; and they are able to impose significant financial burdens on law enforcement agencies.”

Jones, of the ACLU, and Sandoval caution that reforms may ultimately be limited if jail officials regard payouts as simply the cost of doing business. “They have to seek out private insurance, which they don’t end up paying for, the taxpayers pay for it,” says Sandoval. “To me, it almost seems like, how are they operational with the liabilities that are on their docket already? How is it possible that these places still remain open and functioning?”

Still, Sandoval sees a strategy like Coyte’s as a potentially powerful advocacy tool. “I think more people should be looking at this kind of litigation,” she says.

Coyte has visited other states to lead seminars on civil rights lawsuits, and says he gets calls from lawyers around the country interested in implementing his strategies, though variation in state laws make civil suits more financially feasible in some states than others.

Jones says there’s still not enough lawyers willing to take these cases on, but hopes that will change. “Prisons and jails are bastions of civil rights violations,” he says. “When we have civil rights attorneys bringing these cases, those verdicts become talking points for the need to reform.”

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