The family of a Los Lunas man held in solitary confinement for five months before he hanged himself in a privately run state prison near Santa Rosa in 2014 has settled with the last of three defendants and agreed to drop the civil lawsuit over his death.
Michael Mattis’ family will get $500,000 from Andrew Kowalkowski, the psychiatrist the plaintiffs claim failed to treat Mattis inside the prison, said Matt Coyte, the family’s lawyer.
The family settled with two other defendants in the case — prison operator GEO Group and onetime inmate medical care provider Corizon — earlier this year.
Those settlements are confidential, Coyte said, but a solitary confinement reform bill law passed earlier this year will require private prison operators to report future settlements with inmates to the counties in which they operate.
Neither Kowalkowski or his attorney returned calls seeking comment.
According to court records, Mattis, 22, entered the state prison system in March 2014 after pleading no contest to residential burglary. He had never been in legal trouble before but had a history of mental illness.
He was first held at the Springer Correctional Center, according to the lawsuit, but in May 2014, he was moved to Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility near Clayton and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychotic disorder, according to his family’s complaint.
After a single video interaction with Mattis, the complaint says, Kowalkowski directed the prison staff to monitor him closely but didn’t prescribe any medication.
Later that month, Mattis was transferred again, this time to the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa.
Staff at the Guadalupe County prison placed Mattis in an isolated cell behind a set of stairs where guards were unable to closely monitor him. His mental condition worsened as the months went by, according to the lawsuit.
Kowalkowski scheduled two more appointments with Mattis before his death, the complaint says, but when the inmate refused to attend the sessions, the doctor discharged him from the psychiatric clinic without taking further action.
Kowalkowski knew Mattis “was experiencing acute symptoms of mental illness,” the complaint says, but failed to communicate the seriousness of his condition to others.
In September 2014, a staff member recommended Mattis be referred for alternative housing because of his mental illness. But Deputy Warden Phil Aragon, a GEO Group employee, “ignored the serious nature of [Mattis’] situation” and authorized six more months of solitary confinement, the lawsuit says.
In October, Mattis was scheduled to be moved to a mental health center run by the state prison system, according to the lawsuit, but the day he was supposed to have been moved, the transfer was canceled.
The next morning, a guard found Mattis “hanging by the neck with a strip of his bed sheets,” the complaint says.
Coyte said he learned during the case that Kowalkowski provided services to inmates remotely via video conferencing and appeared to be billing multiple providers in different states for work allegedly completed at the same time.
Coyte said he discovered the doctor’s billing practices after former Department of Corrections Behavioral Health Bureau Chief Bianca McDermott said in a deposition that she had complained doctors in the telepsychiatry program were not spending enough time with patients. At the time, the program was being operated by Corizon.
“That caused us to look into his billing records,” Coyte said.
A spokesman for Corizon declined to comment.
McDermott filed a Whistleblower Protection Act complaint against the Department of Corrections in 2017, alleging it retaliated against her after she complained the agency was not properly auditing Corizon’s compliance with its contract to deliver medical care to inmates.
According to an internal report used as evidence in McDermott’s case, “Corizon personnel absolutely knew they were free to do anything without fear of consequences.”
Coyte said Kowalkowski continued working with New Mexico inmates after the state replaced Corizon with Centurion in 2016 because he subcontracted with both companies.
The Department of Corrections recently awarded a new inmate medical care contract to Wexford Health Sources, and a spokeswoman for that company said “Wexford Health will not by bringing Dr. Kowalkowski on board as part of our transition from Centurion.”
Coyte said the state’s practice of outsourcing inmate medical care to for-profit vendors does not promote accountability.
“It’s a practical reality of the way the system is set up,” Coyte said. “The incentive is to have lower medical care bills. The state doesn’t monitor the quality of care. The private company doesn’t monitor the subcontractors it hires… and everyone ends up happy except for the prisoners who are going without care.”