Justice: Virgin Islands has failed to fix prison
Federal civil rights lawyers contend in their motion that prisoners are suffering serious, ongoing harm
By Joy Blackburn
The Virgin Islands Daily News
ST. CROIX — Contending that the territory is responding far too slowly to crisis conditions at Golden Grove prison, the U.S. Justice Department has asked the court to enforce orders for the territory to bring conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards.
Federal civil rights lawyers contend in their motion, filed last week, that prisoners are suffering serious, ongoing harm because the territory has again failed to take the steps it agreed to at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility.
"A vacuum of agency level leadership, failure to allocate basic resources, and critical staffing shortages allow prisoners to continue to exert control over the facility, obtain and conceal dangerous contraband, and move within and outside of housing units with little to no supervision - with dangerous results," the motion states.
The motion for enforcement of orders - and for adding a few more aimed at forcing corrective action from the territory to address certain staffing, security, fire and life safety, environmental, and medical and mental health care issues - is one of the most recent moves in an ongoing court case over unconstitutional conditions at Golden Grove that has been litigated for more than 27 years.
In that time, the territory has consistently agreed to fix conditions at the prison that violate the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and has consistently failed to meet its obligation to do so, according to the motion.
"Defendants' resistance to achieving constitutional compliance has plagued the leadership of the Bureau of Corrections since the inception of this case," the motion states, noting that the bureau previously blamed non-compliance with past court orders on the format of the orders, claiming they were too restrictive, too cumbersome or too unwieldy.
So the parties entered into the new agreement using a "new approach" that gives the territory discretion in establishing the details of policies designed to fix the unconstitutional conditions, the motion states.
The court approved the agreement in May 2013.
"Unfortunately, nine months later, the 'new approach' has led to the old outcome: Defendants have taken minimal to no steps toward compliance, and prisoners continue to suffer," the U.S. Justice Department states in its motion, contending that "the discretion afforded Defendants only leads to inaction."
The territory has not yet responded to the 46-page motion.
Instead, the territory asked for more time to formulate its response, which the judge has granted. The independent monitor who is charged with evaluating how well the territory is doing in implementing the agreement was on a site visit to the prison last week, and the territory was too busy facilitating that visit to respond, according to its request.
The U.S. Justice Department's motion is based on conditions at the prison that the monitor observed in December. It was not clear whether those conditions may have changed since then.
Not properly prioritized
The motion from the U.S. Justice Department contends the territory has not properly prioritized implementation of the court-monitored agreement.
It notes, for instance, that a policy development schedule the territory finally came up with more than seven months after the court-ordered deadline "shows little regard" for the urgent situations the independent monitor identified at the prison in December, and that the schedule made no effort to prioritize critical policy areas.
"Defendants could not even commit to provide working radios until July 30, 2015 - over a year and a half from now - despite the fact that staff and prisoners continue to suffer serious risk of harm from the absence of basic communications equipment," the motion said.
The allegations that the U.S. Justice Department makes include:
- Golden Grove does not have enough corrections staff to keep prisoners reasonably safe.
The motion highlights a wide variety of problems, including "critical" understaffing and inadequate supervision of prisoners, as well as failure to conduct regular and randomized checks for contraband, which all contribute to dangerous conditions at the prison.
It also notes the urgent need for a staffing analysis, which, according to the motion, the Bureau of Corrections doesn't plan to do until next year.
The motion does say that the bureau reported in January that 14 new corrections officers began the training academy, but it notes that evaluating the significance of the hires in terms of reducing the staffing shortage is "impossible," because the territory has not conducted a security staffing analysis as required by court orders.
- The Bureau of Corrections engages in unsafe security practices that put staff and prisoners at increased risk of harm.
The motion notes that Corrections officers are often forced to supervise one or two housing units at a time, without any way to call supervisors or backup officers in an emergency.
"The unit log books are replete with examples of corrections officers reporting to their post, only to find that there is no working radio, phone or other method of communication," it states, noting that under the Bureau of Correction's current plan, the bureau doesn't plan to provide Corrections officers with working radios until July 30, 2015, and doesn't plan to replace telephone equipment until Dec. 31, 2015.
The motion contends that the territory continues to leave security gates throughout Golden Grove unlocked or standing open, fails to lock facility and housing unit doors, and that the doors to individual cells are often left unlocked or can be easily popped open.
- The territory does not provide constitutionally adequate mental and medical health care.
The motion notes numerous problems, including long delays before prisoners are seen by medical or mental health staff; treatment decisions, like starting or terminating suicide watch, being made by corrections officers instead of qualified professionals; and a lack of coordination between medical staff, security staff, and facility management.
- The territory continues to provide inadequate fire and life safety equipment systems.
"Despite two fire emergencies in the previous 12 months, Golden Grove still has no functional fire detection or suppression system in place," the motion states.
It goes on to note that fire sprinklers are inoperable and used by prisoners to hang clotheslines inside cells, while fire control panels are also inoperable. It also notes other problems, including exposed electrical wiring near leaking water and burn marks indicating electrical shorting.
- Prisoners live in hazardous and unsanitary conditions.
The problems highlighted in the motion include no hot water in the housing units, inoperable sinks and toilets, lack of adequate and sanitary laundry services, standing water in housing units because of flooding during rainstorms, and mold on ceilings, maintenance closets, pipes, recreation areas, and in the kitchen area.
The motion also notes very high temperatures in housing units and lack of any formal sanitation inspection or infection control program.
The U.S. Justice Department is seeking eight specific orders from the court to address what it sees as the most critical issues at Golden Grove, according to the motion.
Those orders are for immediate actions, and include orders to do things like immediately repairing the broken locks on cell doors and facility gates and discontinue the practice of leaving facility and housing unit gates unlocked.
The motion also asks the court to order the territory to comply with any other terms that the court deems necessary to ensure immediate and significant compliance with the agreement.
The U.S. Justice Department is also asking for monthly telephone status meetings.
Although federal civil rights lawyers are asking for some things to be done immediately, they also note in the motion that the overall implementation of the agreement is likely to take some time.
"Defendants have been on notice of the abysmal state of conditions at Golden Grove for an extraordinary amount of time, and done nothing. The parties entered into the agreement to ensure that Golden Grove operates at a constitutional level and that all prisoners are kept safe," the motion states. "Full compliance with the agreement will undoubtedly take time and a tremendous amount of effort. However, current conditions at Golden Grove are so extremely dangerous that this court's intervention is needed to ensure that some specific, basic steps are taken immediately."
There was a status conference on the matter in U.S. District Court on Friday.
Judge Wilma Lewis set a hearing on the motion, as well as a status conference to discuss where the territory is at in implementing the agreement, for April 28.