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Lawsuit accuses jail of mistreating mentally ill inmate

Albuquerque Journal (NM) - 7/1/2016

A civil rights lawsuit filed in federal district court alleges that a mentally ill Sandoval County jail inmate was kept locked away in isolation for months with inadequate treatment as her health deteriorated drastically.

Sharon Vanwagner’s attorney, Jack Jacks, said the 42-page complaint filed June 17 is based primarily on logs kept by jail employees who watched Vanwagner around the clock. The complaint states that “it was obvious” when she was booked into jail in October 2013 that she “had a serious mental illness.”

Defendants in the case include jail employees, medical staff, the County Commission and Correct Care Solutions — the company that provided medical services to the facility. Sandoval County spokesman Sidney Hill confirmed that Vanwagner had been an inmate at the county detention facility. But he said the county has not received any notice of a lawsuit and that he can’t comment on litigation.

Jacks said Vanwagner was arrested in October 2013 on a bench warrant related to charges, including child abuse, after a family dispute. Vanwagner was found incompetent to stand trial and her charges were dismissed in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Jacks said Vanwagner’s mental illness was likely a factor in the incident leading to her arrest and he said he believes the family was looking for some sort of intervention when they contacted law enforcement.

“Unfortunately, the way a lot of things happen in New Mexico is when you call the police department, the default is usually to take an individual to jail,” Jacks said. “And I believe the officers probably assume they’ll get some sort of mental health treatment while they’re in the facility. But, in Sharon’s case, that just didn’t happen.”

Instead, she was placed in medical isolation for about three months. Her health declined into psychosis and delusion, he said. The complaint alleges that her cell was monitored 24 hours a day and the light remained on constantly. She was not allowed personal items, reading or writing materials, could not participate in religious activities and was naked in her cell except for a “suicide smock.”

“Her behavior deteriorated to very horrific patterns of playing in the toilet, wetting herself,” Jacks said.

She believed she’d been raped and impregnated by a jail guard, and often refused to take her medication, he said.

“Sharon was entitled to mental health care and entitled to be treated humanely,” Jacks said. “And she was denied both.”

Jacks said the suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.