4 On Your Side exposes county jail shortcomings

Posted at: 02/07/2014 11:04 PM
Updated at: 02/07/2014 11:24 PM
By: Chris Ramirez, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Chris Ramirez: The American corrections system is designed to take criminals into jails and prisons and return them back to their communities as a rehabilitated person.  But our 4 On Your Side investigative report shows how the Valencia County Detention Center may actually be putting people back on the streets in a worse condition than when they went in.

The most notable example can be found in the case of Jan Green.  For the large part of two years, Green lived in cellblock 135-Charlie.  It’s an observation cell at the Valencia County Detention Center and was never intended for long-term living.  In fact, up until a few years ago, it didn’t even have a bed.  But jail staff kept Green there because they didn’t know what else to do with her.  Green has some mental health issues and the jail was not equipped to deal with them.  In fact, there is no documentation that she was ever administered medication.   

Up until I traveled to Minnesota to meet Jan Green, she had never publicly discussed her experiences in solitary confinement.  

“I did have a window that looked into the walkway,” Green said as she described 135-Charlie.  “It had a metal toilet.  I couldn’t get the water to work properly.  I was unable to wash my hands and stuff.”

Green’s attorney Matt Coyte filed a lawsuit in 2012 that claimed jail staff deprived her of toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, and showers.  The suit claimed she had been left in 135-Charlie for so long, the fabric of her socks rotted into her foot.  

“When you’re put in a cell like that, you just get worse,” Green said.  “It doesn’t help at all.”

Over time, Green’s mental health deteriorated to the point she entered a state of psychosis.

Joe Chavez, the warden of the Valencia County facility, said Green was kept in solitary confinement because she bothered other female inmate in the general population.  But Warden Chavez denies his staff ever deprived her of her sanitary needs.  Warden Chavez does admit that Green presented problems.

“That was the think with her, you just never knew what you were going to get with Jan,” Warden Chavez told me during an interview.  “We knew she had mental health issues.  Her behavior was erratic to say the least.”

The warden said while Green was in his custody, the facility contracted a psych nurse practitioner who would see inmates will mental health needs for a maximum of fours hours each week.  But the warden said that nurse did a poor job of documenting all of the care she provided to the inmates.  

During the interview, Warden Chavez admitted 4hours a week of medical care for the entire jail population was inadequate.  He also admitted that Valencia County leaders do not give him enough resources or funding to appropriately handle the influx of inmates with mental health needs.

“We’re just not equipped with dealing with mental health populations,” Warden Chavez said.  “Like with Jan, the courts knew she was mentally ill, but they sent her to this jail, because I don’t think they even know what to do with them.”

Coyte points out he understands it’s an economic decision to cut mental health out of a budget, but he adds it’s a narrow minded and shortsighted approach.  Valencia County settled the lawsuit for $1.6 million.  The total budget for mental health care at the Valencia County Detention Center was set at $250,000.

The settlement also demands that Valencia County can no longer leave anybody in cellblock 135-Charlie for longer than 48 hours.  It also demands that anybody with a mental health diagnosis see a professional at least once a week.  

“I really believe that some of the changes that we were able to establish are going to be very helpful,” Jan Green said.  

Green is receiving therapy to combat the trauma she suffered at the jail and to battle her mental health illnesses.  She is living near her daughter in a community outside Minneapolis now.

Warden Chavez reports that his mental health budget has increased in the last month.  He is now able to bring on a full time therapist to work with ill inmates.