Jan. 13, 2005 — A federal judge ordered mentally ill prisoners be held in hospitals, not jails, saying the territory's government was not providing humane treatment in its prisons.
U.S. District Judge Stanley S. Brotman said Tuesday that the U.S. Virgin Islands government has repeatedly ignored orders stemming from an 11-year-old lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It just is not right. We are still people dealing with people and we can't close our eyes," Brotman said.
His statements came during a hearing on the fate of four prisoners deemed unfit to stand trial because of mental illness or found innocent by reason of insanity, yet have nonetheless been held in prisons.
"This is unconscionable. It baffles me. These are men who are not guilty in the eyes of the law," said Eric Balaban, an attorney for the ACLU.
The inmates were briefly moved to St. Croixs Juan F. Luis hospital but were soon sent back to prison for reasons neither Balaban nor acting Department of Corrections Director Joseph Ponteen could explain.
Compounding the problem, the prison's psychiatrist quit in November and it was unclear who was providing medication for the prisoners, Balaban said.
Brotman ordered the government to move the men to a suitable psychiatric center within 60 days. Ponteen did not object and promised to improve health conditions in the territory's three jails by hiring health staff and devising health policies and procedures.
The government has had trouble funding renovations to a mental health facility on St. Croix and is behind schedule in plans to revamp part of the Golden Grove prison to house such prisoners.
Brotman, who has thrice found the government in contempt of court in the case, beseeched Gov. Charles Turnbull to apply emergency funding.
"Costs are not only measured in loss of money. It can be measured in loss of lives," he said.
The ACLU filed the class action lawsuit in 1994 against the territory's government, alleging widespread rights abuses in prisons in the island of St. Thomas. The charges ranged from poor sanitary conditions to abuse of mentally ill inmates. Brotman ruled in favor of the ACLU and has since found the territory in contempt of court three times for failing to improve conditions.
Brotman inspected the Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas on Tuesday and said conditions in the jail had greatly improved. He said reporters should be allowed to inspect the jail as well. A request by a Source reporter last week to view the jail was denied by U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Kerry Drew.
As part of a separate suit, the U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal judge in November to find the U.S. Virgin Islands government in contempt of court for not following orders aimed at improving conditions at he Golden Grove prison on St. Croix.
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