A disturbing video appearing on social media was the subject of a hearing late last week in St. Thomas federal court. An attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project says the video depicts a caught-on-camera altercation between a corrections officer and an inmate at the Criminal Justice Complex.
The CJC, on Veteran’s Drive in Charlotte Amalie, has been the subject of a federal consent decree – the result of a 25-year-old lawsuit filed by five inmates advocating for prison reform.
Details about the altercation between a corrections officer identified as Jamal Crooke and inmate Benjamin Hodge was first seen on the ACLU website at www.aclu.org.
The title: “Brutality Against Prisoners Is Often Unseen. In this Virgin Islands Jail, It Was Caught on Video.” It depicts a struggle between a man in an orange jumpsuit, first seated at a table with food items, and a larger man, identified as Crooke.
Attorney Eric Baliban, senior staff counsel for ACLU’s National Prison Project, along with Ryan Kendall, a litigation fellow, discussed the video.
“When Benjamin Hodge, who is serving a nine month sentence at the Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, told a corrections officer he had found a cockroach in his food he did not expect that officer would choke him to near unconsciousness,” they said.
When Hodge told Crooke about the bug in his food, the guard took the tray away and replaced it with another, Baliban said. He then left the room and returned with a glass of water for another dining inmate.
At some point on the video a tense scene erupted between Hodge and Crooke. Because the tape does not include audio, there is no way to say what prompted the confrontation, the lawyer said. The guard is seen struggling with Hodge and placing him in a headlock.
Then the pair disappear from the camera shot. In his report, Crooke said Hodge was the instigator, saying the struggle began when the inmate took a swing at the guard.
The civil liberties lawyer pointed out that use of chokeholds is forbidden in the jail.
On Friday, Baliban had a chance to question Jimmy Warren, Bureau of Corrections chief security officer. All violent incidents taking place at CJC are supposed to subject to an internal review.
“There was an investigation. The result was that BOC found that the reporting of the incident was incomplete and that the officer was either incomplete or he wasn’t truthful. The security chief didn’t complete his report until 39 days later,” Baliban said.
And that’s too late to impose disciplinary action, the lawyer said. A collective bargaining agreement covering jail guards says reports on infractions must be filed within five days.
Warren told the court that a complaint on the jail altercation was filed with police, resulting in “no apparent action,” Baliban said.
Complaints about the use of excessive force are frequently heard during quarterly compliance hearings in the case – Carty, Lawrence, et. al v. Alexander Farrelly. As the number of mentally ill inmates with behavior problems grew, the court ordered specialized training for jail guards to help them lessen the number of times they had to use force.
However, he added, de-escalation techniques taught in the training classes would not have applied in the Hodge incident because the inmate was not mentally ill.
“That’s a different situation, a different set of responsibilities that had to be carried out,” he said.
The lawyer also complained that many of the use-of-force policies put in place at CJC over the past two years have been ignored.
Baliban was not willing to say whether the frequency of violent acts perpetrated by guards upon jail inmates had changed over the years. There was, he said, one encouraging note.
At the Friday hearing there was testimony about a December 2018 incident where a guard used force, was cited for it and disciplined. But aside from making mention of it, the ACLU lawyer declined to say if he expected similar outcomes in the future.