Golden Grove monitor's first report finds little improvement, massive deficiencies


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ST. CROIX - The new independent monitor who will oversee the V.I. Correction Bureau's implementation of a settlement agreement aimed at bringing conditions at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility up to constitutional standards has completed his first evaluation of the prison.

The monitor, Kenneth Ray, and a team of experts found that "very little has improved" at Golden Grove since the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in February filed with the court its uncontested findings on inhumane conditions at the prison.

In May, U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis adopted those findings and determined that the territory still was violating the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

Also in May, Lewis adopted a settlement agreement in the case that contained myriad mandates the territory must meet to bring conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards.

The settlement agreement is the latest set of court orders in a case over unconstitutional conditions at the prison that has been litigated for 27 years. Although multiple sets of court orders have been issued through the years requiring the territory to take steps to provide humane conditions for its prisoners, the territory has yet to bring Golden Grove up to minimal constitutional standards.

Among the mandates in the latest settlement agreement was a requirement that the territory hire an independent monitor to report to the court on conditions inside the prison and the territory's progress in meeting the provisions of the settlement agreement. The monitor can also provide Corrections with advice and technical assistance on reaching compliance.

Ray, the independent monitor, is working with other experts in various areas of prison operations who are part of the independent monitoring team.

In his first report, which was filed with the court earlier this month, Ray wrote that Golden Grove "remains a dangerous and violent environment and is inadequately staffed, equipped, funded, maintained and operated to provide and consistently sustain environmental and operational conditions of inmate care and confinement that meet constitutional requirements."

The report

According to Ray's report, which contains information he and the other experts gathered during a site visit to Golden Grove in September, the territory is not complying with 108 of the 119 provisions in the consent decree and had reached partial compliance with seven provisions. Two of the provisions remained in a pending status for review during the monitor's next visit, which was scheduled for this month.

The mandates are spread among a number of subject areas, including safety and supervision; medical and mental health care; life and fire safety; environmental health and safety; and training.

Ray's first report was a baseline assessment from which he plans to monitor progress and compliance, he wrote.

In his executive summary, Ray wrote that policies and procedures at Golden Grove "remain underdeveloped, incomplete, and/or nonexistent."

According to Ray's assessment, the lack of adequate policies and procedures contributes in part to "inconsistent and dangerous" security practices and habits, including "cell doors and housing unit access points being padlocked and chained, internal housing unit gates being left open, housing unit control room doors being left unlocked, nonfunctional security lighting throughout external and internal security perimeters, ill-maintained security fencing, an inadequate number of and broken portable radios, nonfunctional security door control panels, nonfunctional camera system and control panels in the two operational towers, ill-maintained and broken cell door components and observation windows, and various other practices that allowed inmates to move about the campus without being searched."

Making those conditions worse, according to Ray, "is a serious lack of adequately trained and supervised correctional staff, and an overarching common frustration among staff regarding leadership support and commitment to improve security and poor environmental conditions."

The 99-page report delves into detail about the problems the executive summary touches on.

Problems

The report points to a "serious, dangerous, chronic and pervasive" contraband problem at the prison that includes knives, machetes, cell phones and "large amounts of illegal drugs."

It notes that at the time of the site visit in September, there had not been a facility-wide shakedown at Golden Grove for more than two years, even though contraband is a known problem at the facility.

Ray goes on to point out, though, that contraband reports he received indicate that incidents of contraband and the volume of contraband confiscated has increased significantly since the agreement was approved in May.

It was not clear whether this increase was because of more attention to the problem or because there was more contraband, or both, according to the report.

Other issues Ray highlights in the executive summary include lack of an adequate complaint system for inmates; environmental conditions that are unsanitary and unhealthy throughout the facility; and fire and life safety conditions that are entirely inadequate.

A variety of problems in those subject areas are noted in the executive summary, including dirty kitchen and food service areas that are in "ill-repair"; insects on food and in the kitchen; nonfunctional fire sprinkler systems; padlocked cell doors; and a padlocked chain providing access into one entire housing unit.

"Fire drills are not regularly conducted nor are staff adequately trained, equipped or prepared to effectively respond to fire emergencies. There is no fire or master key control program whereby officers are routinely assessed to demonstrate competency with basic fire safety response measures," the report states, noting that inmate cells are "cluttered" with combustible items. "Staff do not have access to breathing equipment needed to respond safely to a fire incident. They would not be able to safely search for or rescue others from a smoke-filled structure."

The report says that it does appear that Golden Grove "possesses an experienced and competent fire safety coordinator who can provide expert guidance toward compliance in these areas." It was not clear from the report why that compliance had not already occurred.

More issues

Ray noted a variety of other issues during the baseline assessment - the kinds of problems that also were pointed out in the findings filed months ago - including:

- Inadequate policies and procedures to ensure timely review and consistent tracking of facility mishaps and staff misconduct.

- Inadequate medical, mental health and suicide policies, procedures and practices. The report notes that mentally ill inmates are often not assessed or properly treated. "There are no formal treatment plans, no basic counseling services, few treatment encounters with qualified providers or even enough qualified providers to deliver minimum levels of care if treatment programs were possible," the report states.

The executive summary notes that Corrections Bureau officials discussed a plan to "rebuild" a training program for Corrections officers and bring it onsite under the direct control of the warden. Ray characterized that as "a positive sign."

"However, there was no evidence provided to determine the effectiveness of the existing training program," he wrote, noting that he was provided with "an outline of training topics," but not a current training curriculum.

Implementation

Implementing the settlement agreement, according to the report, "has not appeared to have yet gained much traction."

Although the report states that there is no planned and systematic process in place at this point to comply with the mandates, local officials seem supportive of the idea.

"Despite a lack of progress and noncompliance with virtually all of the provisions in this agreement, Territory officials voiced a serious commitment to comply with the agreement," Ray wrote.

The parties in the case saw a draft version of the independent monitor's report and were allowed to provide input before it was filed with the court.

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

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