If anyone were to ask Anthony Graves and Stephen Slevin what they have in common, the two men might automatically respond to the basic facts of their previous incarceration, subsequent release from prison and jail, respectively, and of their ultimate receipt of funds from their respective states for crimes committed against them.
Their commonality, however, is more significant than their incarcerations and subsequent freedoms.
While Anthony Graves, incarcerated in a Texas prison for nearly two decades for a crime he did not commit, emerged a free man, his imprisonment affected him in ways only he can fully acknowledge. Speaking before a Senate Judiciary Committee on solitary confinement in June 2012, he relayed in great detail the psychological, emotional and physical horrors visited upon prisoners confined to solitary confinement. Eye-gouging, skin-cutting and other forms of self-mutilations only partially describe the horrors of solitary confinement, the systematic practice of segregating prisoners deemed a danger to themselves and/or other prisoners. Listening to Anthony Graves speak of the psychological effects of solitary confinement is painful. He is the one, however, who lives with the memories only those on the outside can imagine. Difficulties with sleeping are only one of the many consequences he faces as a “free” man. Even though he is no longer behind bars, his freedom comes with–and at–a price: revolving nightmares of his incarceration. Graves’ freedom is, as he described during the Senate hearings, is a journey of caution, one which he must carefully navigate one step at a time.
While Stephen Slevin’s circumstances differ slightly from Anthony Graves’ walk to freedom, their paths are eerily similar.
In August 2005, while driving through Dona Ana County, New Mexico, with no specific destination in mind, Slevin was arrested on a DWI charge and for driving a vehicle that did not belong to him. From the point of his arrest and subsequent transfer to the county’s detention enter, his nightmare began. Never officially charged with committing a crime, he also never had a trial, languishing in jail for 22 months. From the moment of his detainment, his association with human contact was limited. Initially placed in a padded cell on the jail’s floor–wearing only a “suicide smock”–Slevin faced the first of two impending transfers following a few weeks of medical examination at the facility. While prison policy dictated open showering with other inmates, he was administratively placed in an “observation cell,” which contained its own shower, toilet and a window. The amenities were not, however, due to the goodness and graciousness of jail officials; the services were provided for the purpose of observing Mr. Slevin on a 24/7 basis. Following the assignment of his “private quarters” he was eventually transferred to solitary confinement where, until his release from jail, he remained.
In view of Slevin’s placement, controversy surrounds (to this day) his placement in a 6-by-11 foot cell. With little to no outside contact, his mental health began to deteriorate. Matt Coyte, Slevin’s attorney, who worked tirelessly over the years to free him, said that prison policy dictates that mentally ill inmates be placed in administrative segregation. Not so, according to Jess Williams, Dona Ana County’s public information director. According to Williams, Slevin was administratively placed at his (Slevin’s) request, because, according to the director, Slevin did not wish to be placed in the prison’s general population, that upon an opportunity to join the general population in a cell block with a day room, he refused. The remaining (and only option, according to Williams) was to place Slevin in one of the facility’s 28 solitary confinement cells.
In January 2006, three months after placement in solitary confinement, Slevin began exhibiting delirious behavior. Previously able to compose letters to his sister as well as correspondence to jail officials in appeal of medical attention, he informed jail officials of his inability to sleep and began experiencing panic attacks. According to Coyte, Slevin began a slow mental decline, exhibiting constant rocking, back and forth, in his cell. Other medical conditions arose during his incarceration as well. While he was given food and provided medication during his incarceration, other behaviors and conditions, attributed to his confinement, arose: He quit bathing, fungus grew on his skin, his toenails grew to such lengths they began to curl, and he was in need of dental work. The pain of a decaying tooth drove him to self-extract the tooth. According to his attorney, Slevin “began to decay, essentially, as a human being.”
Photographs of the former inmate, from the time of his arrest to his subsequent release in 2007, show a man nearly unrecognizable from his 2005 booking photo. His face, noticeably drawn, was shadowed by long, thinning gray hair; where no facial hair presented itself in the initial photo, a bushy, flowing, gray beard, reached his chest. Slumped shoulders beneath orange jail attire added to his desolate look. If the eyes are a window to one’s soul, Stephen Slevin’s vacant stare into the camera was a defeatist’s gaze. In an interview conducted with NBC News on March 6, 2013, Coyte reiterated Slevin’s state of mind and health, emphasizing that Slevin’s mental health “has been severely compromised from the time he was in that facility . . . [that] no amount of money will bring back what they took from him.” Based on substantial reports of Slevin’s 22 month incarceration, few will argue with the attorney’s assessment.
While the charges against Stephen Slevin were eventually dropped in 2007, Don Ana County, New Mexico has settled a claim filed in federal court for Slevin’s ordeal. It is one of the largest prisoner civil rights payouts in U. S. history, and if final numbers matter, the judicial disaster amounts to high figures: $22 million awarded to Slevin; $15.5 million agreed upon in a final settlement; $9.5 million from county coffers (in other words, taxpayers will foot the bill) ; 22 months in which Slevin was held in legal limbo, and no county official has thus far been held accountable for the injustice inflicted upon him.
Due to court-imposed settlements awarded Anthony Graves and Stephen Slevin, each man may have a chance of rebuilding their lives following the egregious actions perpetrated against them. No amount of financial settlements, however, can remove the memories and experiences that each endured at the hands of an unjust legal system. A fervent advocate against the practice of solitary confinement, Anthony Graves is a forceful orator overseeing a non-profit organization, “Anthony Believes,” that addresses injustices in the penal justice system. His support of prisoners’ rights takes him on speaking engagements throughout the country where his voice is clear, honest and straightforward. Even though Stephen Slevin is, like Anthony Graves, a “free” man, his current battle with lung cancer (not evidenced by his lack of proper medical treatment in prison) is his first priority.
While we wish Stephen Slevin well and hope that he will overcome his battle with cancer, we also hope that he has begun to heal from the horrors endured in Dona Ana County, New Mexico.