Feds, V.I. Corrections officials agree on new schedule for improvements at Golden Grove

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ST. CROIX - Federal civil rights lawyers on Saturday withdrew a motion asking a judge to enforce orders aimed at making the territory move more quickly to fix crisis conditions at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility.

The move came after the U.S. Justice Department and the territory agreed late last week to a work plan and schedule for the territory to implement court orders aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards.

A hearing in U.S. District Court on Monday - which was to have covered the motion to enforce orders - instead became a hearing on the status of the prison in general and the territory's efforts at reaching compliance with court orders, as was originally planned.

The U.S. Justice Department has litigated the case over inhumane conditions at Golden Grove for more than 27 years - although the territory has still not improved conditions at the prison enough to meet basic constitutional standards.

A year ago, U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis adopted the latest set of court orders in the case - an agreement containing sweeping orders dealing with all aspects of corrections. If the territory is able to implement all of the agreement's provisions and sustain them, the case would be settled.

However, the independent monitor tasked with assessing the territory's progress and reporting to the court on it has seen scant progress since then.

Requesting more conditions

In March, the U.S. Justice Department, contending that the territory was responding far too slowly to crisis conditions at the prison, asked the court to enforce orders in the case and to add a few new ones.

Part of the issue was that an implementation schedule and work plan submitted by the territory and approved or revised by the monitor - as required by the agreement - was not yet in place.

The territory opposed the motion to enforce orders, and both sides wrote lengthy legal briefs on the issue and submitted a number of exhibits.

Lewis had set Monday's hearing to hear from the attorneys on that issue, as well as to hear about the status of the prison.

At a pre-hearing conference on Thursday, though, she raised the question of why there was a motion before her to enforce orders, when the monitor had not yet adopted or revised the work plan and implementation schedule.

So Lewis told independent monitor Kenneth Ray to talk to the parties about it, try to come to agreement, and submit whatever work plan and implementation schedule he had adopted by 5 p.m. Friday. The settlement agreement allows either side to bring any disputes with the schedule and work plan adopted by the monitor to the court.

Attorneys said there were lengthy discussions and negotiations late last week.

Reviewing priorities

According to a court document submitted by the U.S. Justice Department, the territory agreed to move up and prioritize certain areas, including many of the emergency areas on which the federal agency had wanted the court to enforce orders.

When the territory did not agree to move up deadlines and a dispute remained, the monitor set a deadline that he believed was appropriate, balancing the limitations facing the territory and the concerns of the U.S. Justice Department, according to the document.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Brett said in court Monday that the U.S. Justice Department agreed that the deadlines are reasonable - although she still has some concerns about the territory's ability to meet them.

Lewis said she hoped the parties learned something.

The judge noted that the parties in the case had composed a total of 90 pages of legal briefing and put together more than 1,100 pages of exhibits on the motion to enforce, spending a great deal of time and effort and resources litigating something that was addressed by an existing provision in the settlement agreement.

"It went on and on," she said, noting that "a whole host" of issues that were brought up in the briefs took the matter far afield when what was needed was a plan adopted by the monitor, which the parties could opt to agree with or not.

"I hope this will be a teaching moment for the monitor and for the parties," she said. "As far as I see, that was a waste of precious time and resources."

The judge's advice

She said the resources could have been better used to help fix problems at the prison.

"Please make sure that you read the agreement carefully and do what you're supposed to do," she said.

She also cautioned the parties against litigating for the sake of litigating, and told the parties if an issue arises, to look first to the existing agreement to resolve it.

Lewis noted that the case has gone on for decades - but said she does not intend to preside over it for decades more.

"This needs to end and it will only end if we get serious about getting the problems resolved," she said. She told the territory to move with urgency to correct the problems.

"The game is over. It's time to get to work, and that's what I am going to expect," she said.

Status hearing

Lewis eventually moved into a status hearing on the state of compliance efforts at the prison.

Ray, the independent monitor who as a corrections expert is tasked with assessing how well the territory is complying with the settlement agreement, visits the prison quarterly with a team of two other experts and writes reports based on their direct observations, discussions with prisoners and staff and review of documents. The reports are filed with the court.

Although there was an expectation that those reports would be submitted as evidence at the hearing, the territory's lawyer sought to block that from happening, arguing that the reports are "hearsay" and therefore inadmissible as evidence.

The U.S. Justice Department disagreed, and has opposed the move, contending the reports are admissible. No order about the reports' admissibility has been issued at this point.

Monday's hearing went on without the reports being presented as evidence.

Prison staffing problems

Much of the morning was devoted to staffing problems at the prison, with Lewis questioning Corrections Director Julius Wilson about staffing issues and challenges and evaluating the answers.

Although 14 new corrections officers started training at the Police Academy in December, the number that remain has dropped to 10, Wilson told the judge.

Including recruitment time, and the seven months of the Police Academy, it can take up to 16 months to bring a new corrections officer on board, he said.

Lewis made suggestions and probed for different ways that the department could think outside the box and potentially bring security staff on much more quickly.

The staffing shortage at Golden Grove, Lewis noted more than once, is critical and has rippling effects throughout the prison.

"This staffing issue seems to be driving a lot of the problems," she said.

Wilson said that by the end of the year, Corrections anticipates it will have 30 additional officers, and that during Fiscal Year 2015, an additional 20 to 25 officers will be brought on, contingent on finding successful candidates.

However, he said that staff members also retire or leave for other reasons.

"We're fighting a constant battle to keep the numbers up," he said.

Other issues

Lewis also questioned Wilson on where the prison is with hiring medical and mental health staff, and delved into those areas.

There was also lengthy discussion on the development of policies and procedures, on the issue of contraband in the prison, and on safety issues, such as locks on doors.

The hearing lasted all day.

Lewis plans to convene a status conference every five months for an update.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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