The recent mass destruction of car windows in a St. John parking lot provides a painful illustration of a protracted dispute between the American Civil Liberties Union and the V.I. government. That dispute cites ongoing deficiencies at the St. Thomas jail.
One of the critical problems, according to the ACLU National Prison Project, is the need for a long-term hospital facility to care for mentally ill prisoners. Of the 43 inmates held at the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex, 18 are identified as suffering from some form of mental illness, more than 40 percent, according to newly appointed Corrections Bureau Director Wynnie Testamark.
In May a federal judge overseeing a court imposed consent decree mandating reform at the jail rejected a statement by a Justice Department lawyer representing Corrections who said it may take 25 years before all required changes are made. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez replied that 25 years has already passed since the V.I. government and its governor were ordered to implement reforms.
Most recently, the judge directed the legal teams to work toward reaching a stipulated agreement on what to do next. According to the latest round of court documents filed in the case, ACLU and Bureau of Corrections, represented by the Justice Department, were again at odds.
Justice officials, led by newly appointed Attorney General Denise George-Counts, said much had been done to move the jail towards compliance. ACLU Attorney Eric Baliban complained in a filing that Justice had completely rejected the Prison Project’s proposed stipulation agreement.
Baliban cites two non-compliance areas where he says Corrections violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both speak to the need for better treatment of the incarcerated mentally ill.
One calls for construction of a direct supervision facility where prison staff can keep close watch over mentally ill or disruptive inmates. The other cites “the Defendant’s ongoing failure to open hospital beds in the territory for treatment of members of the Plaintiff’s class in need of long-term hospital-level mental health care.”
A few days prior to that directive, Corrections shipped eight mentally ill inmates off island to a private facility in South Carolina. A few days later, they also moved a female inmate who was declared in need of long term care by a jail psychiatrist but was instead released.
Two months later, the female inmate was back in jail. This time she was charged with stabbing a man to death.
In the June 7 filing the Prison Project attorney noted the move but also pointed to those mentally ill inmates who were left behind.
“The lack of territorial hospital beds cannot be effectively outsourced. The jail will continue to accept patients in need of hospital-level care, yet have nowhere to send them,” Baliban said.
Then came June 12. That was the day 23-year-old Jahkoy Bolques allegedly used a metal pipe to smash the glass of more than two dozen vehicles parked at St. John Marketplace. According to a statement by V.I. Police department spokesman Glen Dratte, the defendant was identified as being mentally ill and was transported directly to the Roy L. Schneider Hospital.
Dratte said it would be up to the attorney general to decide if Bolques had, as a legal matter, in fact been arrested. On June 18, an administrator working in the attorney general’s office confirmed the defendant was arrested June 12 and appeared at a hearing on June 17 in Superior Court.
Dr. Kathryn Burns, a psychiatrist who was retained as an expert on the treatment of mentally ill inmates, said talks are ongoing between the Bureau of Corrections and hospital officials to secure a forensic bed – a bed to care for inmates undergoing mental crises.
But as of the May 24 hearing in St. Thomas District Court, Burns said, there was no deal in place.
George-Counts assured the court several steps were recently taken to demonstrate compliance with the consent decree.
“Defendant persistently advances towards full compliance with the Settlement Agreement through significant measures, including conversion of Cluster 1 into a therapeutic mental health unit employing the contemporary direct supervision management model,” George-Counts said.
The summary page of the June 7 filing from Justice also cited a recent specialized training session for jail personnel; new security rules put in place; new directives regarding the use of force on prisoners and stepped up detection of contraband.
“Equally important, and as Dr. Burns testified to at the last evidentiary hearing, Defendants promulgated critical mental health policies governing timely initial assessments, treatment plans, identification, referral, and management of suicidal prisoners and emergency and non-emergency administration of psychotropic medication,“ George-Counts said.
The attorney general is asking the court to seek other means of sanctioning Corrections if the judge feels the pace of compliance is inadequate. Gomez has said the court may place the St. Thomas jail under federal receivership if the settlement agreement is not concluded in a timely manner.
In May the judge held up another option – the imposition of daily fines and penalties until timely compliance is achieved.
On Thursday, Justice submitted several documents demonstrating the steps that have been taken since May to remain in good faith with the court. Those documents are expected to come up for discussion at the next hearing in the case of Lawrence Carty, et. al, vs. Bryan.