Feds, V.I. agree on Golden Grove
Published: September 4, 2012
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ST. CROIX - The U.S. Department of Justice and the territory have reached a proposed agreement that would settle their legal battle for control of Golden Grove prison.
The 21-page proposed settlement agreement filed in federal court on Friday sets out myriad steps the territory must take to fix unconstitutional conditions at the prison. If a judge signs off on the agreement, those steps will become the latest set of court orders in the 26-year-old case.
The settlement agreement would allow the territory to continue to run the prison, although the V.I. government also would have to hire an independent monitor to oversee implementation of the orders.
Throughout the life of the court case, the territory has repeatedly been given court orders requiring it to bring conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards - and it has repeatedly failed to comply with those orders.
The proposed agreement would become valid if U.S. District Court Judge Wilma Lewis, who presides over the case, signs it.
Gov. John deJongh Jr., V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer, V.I. Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson and Golden Grove Warden Tracey Brown, as well as U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Roy Austin Jr., already have signed the proposed settlement.
The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division originally brought the case against the territory in 1986, alleging unconstitutional conditions at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
A consent decree aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards was filed with the court that year.
However, the territory did not comply with those orders.
Since then, a number of other court orders have been issued in the case aimed at forcing the territory to correct prison conditions to attain minimal constitutional standards. Those court orders include a 1990 Plan of Compliance, a 2003 Stipulated Agreement and a number of court orders issued later, most recently in December 2010.
In June 2011, the U.S. Justice Department asked a judge to appoint a receiver who would control all aspects of prison operations.
In its request for a federal receiver, the U.S. Justice Department cited 25 years of dangerous and unsanitary conditions at the prison, escalating violence and prison officials' repeated failure to comply with court orders.
The territory fought back, first opposing the appointment of a receiver and then asking the judge to terminate all the court orders requiring it to fix conditions at the prison, citing a section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act that it contended invalidated all the court-ordered remedies.
The existing court orders in the case have been on hold since October.
Lewis ruled in February that most of those orders likely were eligible for termination under the Prison Litigation Reform Act because the orders did not contain a specific judicial finding that the law requires.
However, Lewis also said that she needed to determine whether current and ongoing civil rights violations still exist at the prison that need to be corrected before she makes a final ruling on the matter.
A 10-day hearing about whether civil rights violations at the prison were current and ongoing had been scheduled.
However, if the judge approves the settlement agreement, the parties would avoid the expense of a trial, including further payments to experts.
Figures from the Legislature's Post-Audit Division's analysis of the Corrections Bureau, released last month, show that in just more than six months - from Oct. 1, 2011 to April 20, 2012 - the Corrections Bureau racked up $227,660 in expenditures for stateside lawyers and experts to fight the federal government in this case.
The contracts for the Correction Bureau's two lawyers and two experts for the consent decree litigation total almost half a million dollars, according to the post-audit report. Of that, the $227,660 had been expended through April 20.
It was not clear how much Corrections has spent on stateside lawyers and experts since April.
If the court approves the settlement agreement, all outstanding motions by the parties in the case would be deemed withdrawn and officials simply would need to move forward with implementing the court orders to improve prison conditions.
The court would maintain jurisdiction over the matter, so that it could enforce the orders.
"The settlement agreement is fair, reasonable and adequate to address the extensive, ongoing and critical deficiencies at Golden Grove," a joint motion for settlement by the territory and the federal government states.
The motion notes that the proposed agreement marks "a new approach" by the parties.
"The parties agree that necessary reform must be grounded in the development of constitutionally adequate policies, training and implementation of those policies and accountability for breach," the motion states. The motion also says that the proposal contains mechanisms to build that foundation.
The motion characterizes the settlement agreement as one that sets benchmarks but gives the territory discretion to develop the details of its own policies aimed at addressing constitutional deficiencies at the prison.
"The United States and the jointly selected Independent Monitor then review, provide technical assistance and then approve the policies designed by the defendants," the motion states, noting that the process is designed to ensure that the territory is vested in its future success.
The settlement agreement comprises 11 sections with "comprehensive" provisions on safety and supervision, medical and mental health care, fire and life safety, environmental health and safety, and staff training, according to the motion.
Areas that the territory must address under the safety and supervision category include contraband; general security; security staffing; sexual abuse of prisoners; classification and housing of prisoners; incidents and referrals; use of force by staff on prisoners; use of physical restraints on prisoners; handling of prisoner complaints; and administrative investigations.
Medical and mental health care, fire and life safety, environmental health and safety, training, and implementation have individual sections in the settlement agreement.
There are also sections on monitoring and enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Justice has expressed a preference for an independent monitor with experience in corrections.
The territory has stated its preference for an independent monitor from the Virgin Islands.
The proposed settlement agreement states that the independent monitor must:
- Be independent and able to perform the duties of the monitor free from undue influence.
- Have the confidence of the parties, the court and the community.
- Be able to perform the services in a cost-effective manner.
- Have experience in institutional reform, monitoring, dispute resolution, executive leadership, government service or other relevant position.
The proposed agreement describes the process the parties will use to jointly select the monitor. The court must approve the selection.
The monitor's job will include reporting to the parties and the court on the implementation of the settlement agreement.
The parties also have asked that the judge find that the appointment of a monitor constitutes a "public exigency" under a particular section of V.I. Code.
That would allow the territory to bypass regular procurement processes in the selection of the monitor, and treat it as an emergency procurement because of "a threat to public health, safety or welfare under emergency conditions."
The settlement agreement does not have a specific date for termination.
However, it does state that it will terminate after the territory has achieved compliance with the substantive provisions of the settlement agreement and has maintained that compliance for one year.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email email@example.com.