Golden Grove remains 'dangerous, violent, unhealthy'


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ST. CROIX - A new report on conditions at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility says the facility remains "a very dangerous, violent, unhealthy, under-supervised, under-maintained, and deleteriously understaffed correctional environment" - and that the territory has made little progress in improving the situation.

The danger is very real for inmates and for those who work inside the prison, according to Kenneth Ray, the independent monitor hired to assess the territory's progress at implementing court orders aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards.

"Inmates and staff are unnecessarily exposed to real and potential psycho-social and physical violence, inmates cannot receive adequate levels of medical or mental health services and care, and the lack of an adequate fire suppression system places everyone working and incarcerated at GGACF at constant substantial risk," Ray wrote in the 123-page report, which describes conditions when he and a team of two other experts visited the prison last month. The report was filed with the court on Wednesday.

At the time of the visit in March, the V.I. Corrections Bureau released a statement saying that after the evaluation, the monitors provided the bureau "with a preliminary summary of their perspectives and findings in which they asserted that they were pleasantly pleased with many of the improvements seen."

However, in his report on the visit, Ray noted that although the territory made some "efforts" in a few areas, real progress was scarce.

"This assessment found a paucity of progress despite the commendable efforts to purchase new radios, engage a major facility clean-up effort, observing many of the housing and external gates locked, hiring the new psychiatrist, and repairing perimeter fence lighting," the report states in its executive summary.

The U.S. Justice Department, contending that the territory is once again moving too slowly in addressing inhumane conditions at the prison, has asked a federal judge to enforce the orders and add some new ones to address emergency conditions inside the facility.

In the statement that Corrections released last month, though, Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson said that the agency will demonstrate that conditions at the prison have "improved considerably" during the last few months.

U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis has not yet decided the issue, and a hearing has been scheduled for later this month. The conditions described in the new report will be evidence in the proceeding, as will Ray's previous reports.

Long history

Conditions at the prison violate the protection against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - a situation of which the territory has long been aware but consistently has failed to rectify during more than 27 years that the case has been litigated.

Federal civil rights lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department initially brought the case in 1986. There have been court orders, consent decrees and settlement agreements since that time, all aimed at fixing inhumane conditions at Golden Grove.

So far, the territory has failed to do so.

The territory and the U.S. Justice Department reached agreement last year on the most recent set of court orders aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards.

Almost a year ago, in May, Lewis approved the agreement, which contains comprehensive, sweeping orders involving different aspects of Corrections.

Current report

Ray, who was hired after the newest set of court orders was signed, made his third quarterly visit to the prison in March.

In the report on that visit, he notes that 120 substantive provisions are in the agreement under five sections that deal with various aspects of corrections, including safety and supervision; fire and life safety; medical and mental health care; environmental health and safety; and training.

The territory has not achieved substantial compliance with any of those 120 provisions, according to Ray.

The territory has reached partial compliance with 14 of the provisions, an improvement from Ray's December visit, when the territory was in partial compliance with only seven provisions, according to the report.

The assessment included staff and inmate interviews, reviews of various official logs and records, and direct observations.

One of the major problems is staffing, according to Ray.

The report notes that housing unit logs from September 2013 to March 2014 document approximately 275 instances involving staffing shortages, including housing units being left locked or unlocked and unattended by staff; officers showing up to work, only to find no officer on post; officers leaving work or their posts without authorization; officers late to work; no supervisor on duty; and instances where a single officer is responsible for two housing units.

In addition, an examination of supervisor logs for August 2013 through February 2014 "found over 100 instances involving no unit staff, no supervisor, 'extremely short staffed,' staff call-offs, lateness, leaving work without authorization and refusing to work assignments as directed," the report said.

Included among the issues the report notes in its executive summary are:

- Substandard and inconsistent security practices - for instance, inconsistency with closing and locking security doors and gates - that are "exacerbated by inoperable locking mechanisms."

- Housing units that flood during heavy rains and have profuse mold.

- The bureau's training program is in need of a major overhaul.

- A continued problem with dangerous contraband, including knives, shanks, cutting devices and impact tools, as well as cellphones and drugs.

- Problems with the inmate grievance process and the inmate disciplinary process.

- Inmates being allowed to keep used prescription needles and unused syringes in their cells.

- Inmates with mental illness, some of them seriously mentally ill, being locked in their cells for long periods of time and without ongoing assessment or monitoring by mental health professionals.

- Inmates are able to "pop" their cell door locks and gain unauthorized access to housing unit areas.

Recommendations

One of the duties of the monitoring team is to provide technical assistance to the bureau to help it reach compliance, and the 123-page report includes findings and non-binding recommendations from the experts for implementing each of the provisions.

Overall, Ray noted in the executive summary that territory officials "must re-double their efforts and seriously consider revising recruiting policies in order to expeditiously fill all correctional and health care vacancies, and to hire all additional staff required following completion of the staffing analysis."

In addition, he said that filling all health care vacancies, including hiring a medical director and nursing staff immediately, is "equally vital."

"Until this is accomplished, inmate health services effectively function without qualified leadership and clinical staffing levels necessary to provide and maintain constitutional levels of health care," he wrote, adding that additional mental health staff "is clearly warranted and necessary."

In addition, Ray stressed the need for Corrections to create and implement "adequate administrative and operational policies and procedures."

"Many of the problems and concerns discussed in this report are directly and indirectly related to a lack of effective and contemporary policies and procedures to govern facility leadership and staff duties and behavior," Ray wrote. "To date, the Monitor has not received any new or revised policies or procedures for review and approval."

Reaction

Under the terms of the agreement, the territory receives the report before it is made public and is allowed to make comments and suggestions for changes before the monitor finalizes it.

On Wednesday night, the Corrections Bureau released a statement from Wilson, describing the report as one that acknowledges "several improvements achieved by the territory," as well as highlighting deficiencies that still need to be remedied.

Wilson repeated some of what the monitor said about what will be required to achieve full compliance with the agreement.

The statement notes "some disappointment with some aspects of the report," but said that Wilson appreciates the work the monitor did.

It also said there is much work to be done.

"We are hard pressed to move forward with many valued best correctional practices and the improvement of institutional methods and increased training opportunities for personnel, both current and prospective, as emphasized by Mr. Ray's report. All these components, coupled with the accommodating and helpful technical assistance offered, will aid toward ensuring sustained progress and a safer and environmentally sound facility," Wilson said in the statement.

Wilson's statement described efforts to hire additional staff and develop policies as "a continuing work in progress," which Wilson said will be realized in the "near future," although he does not provide any sort of time frame.

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

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