Judge signs agreement mandating changes at St. Thomas jails
Published: September 9, 2013
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A federal judge has signed off on a 26-page settlement agreement between the territory and the American Civil Liberties Union that requires the territory to fix inhumane conditions at the St. Thomas jails.
Visiting U.S. District Judge Stanley Brotman, who is retiring, signed the agreement on Aug. 29.
"It's the beginning of a new phase in this case and one we hope will be more successful in improving conditions than the previous phases have been," ACLU attorney Eric Balaban said in an interview.
During 19 years of litigation in the case, the territory has yet to fully comply with previous court orders to fix unconstitutional conditions at the St. Thomas jails - and has been found in contempt of court four times.
Brotman had given the settlement agreement preliminary approval in May, but it then had to go through a process where it was posted for a period of time at the Criminal Justice Complex jail and at the Alva Swan Annex, so inmates could read it and file any objections they had with lawyers from the ACLU, which represents the inmates.
Balaban said the most-offered objection by inmates was simply a disbelief that the territory would comply with the new set of court orders.
"We told our clients we share that concern," he said, adding that in his opinion, the territory has a "dismal record" of compliance in the case.
The settlement agreement features a myriad of mandates and the use of a cadre of independent experts in various aspects of corrections and jail operations, who will oversee implementation of the court orders, provide monitoring services to evaluate the V.I. Corrections Bureau's compliance with the mandates - and also provide the bureau with guidance and technical assistance.
"We've been working with Judge Brotman and also working with ACLU for some time to reach a settlement," said Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson.
He said he feels like this latest set of court orders "represents a substantial advancement for Corrections for the St. Thomas facilities."
There was a comprehensive settlement agreement in the case in 1994, the year the case was filed, but since then, there have been at least 12 other remedial court orders. According to Balaban, some of those orders were wide-ranging, while others dealt with specific issues.
The new settlement agreement is comprehensive, and will replace all previous orders in the case.
The fact that the experts are not only to monitor conditions at the jails, but also provide technical assistance to Corrections to fix unconstitutional conditions is a critical aspect of the agreement, according to both sides.
The provisions of the settlement agreement are wide-ranging, and many of them involve developing and implementing policies.
Under the settlement agreement, fully implementing a policy means writing it, disseminating it to all staff who deal with the policy, training them, and monitoring and tracking compliance through audit tools.
After that has occurred, the policy must be consistently applied, and there must be corrective action measures to address lapses, in order for a policy to be considered implemented under the agreement.
Mandates concerning safety and security comprise the largest section of the settlement, and that section is divided into 15 subsections with their own provisions, with subject matter ranging from classification and housing of prisoners and general security to contraband and use of force by staff on prisoners.
Other main sections of the settlement deal with provision of adequate medical and mental health care; training; complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act; religious freedom; prisoner access to the courts; mail, telephone and visitation; inmate discipline; and maintenance of a remedial fund.
The territory now has 90 days to propose a schedule for policy development, training, and implementation of the agreement.
The experts will oversee implementation of the settlement and "shall determine the Defendants' compliance with all of the remedies ordered by the court in this case," the agreement states.
The territory will pay for the independent experts, up to $100,000 for each set of two tours - the jail and the annex - and subsequent reports by all the experts, according to the settlement.
The experts will issue an initial report within six months after they are appointed, then every six months until the territory reaches at least partial compliance with every provision of the settlement agreement. At that point, the reports will be issued yearly.
The corrective orders in the settlement will terminate once the territory achieves substantial compliance with the provisions in the agreement and maintains that compliance for a year.
Balaban said that the V.I. government, through its legal counsel, has expressed its commitment to do what needs to be done to implement the new court orders - and that the ACLU will continue to monitor the situation.
He indicated that if the government once again fails to comply with court orders in the case, the ACLU will take whatever measures are appropriate.
Wilson said the government is taking the matter seriously.
"We think we're going to show them that we've learned a lot. We've gotten pretty good at the business of Corrections. We're eager to show the new judge, and the ACLU, and the plaintiffs in this case - those are the inmates and detainees - that we're serious about this," Wilson said. "We want them to live in an environment that meets the constitutional standards."
The ACLU case is specific to the St. Thomas jails. Unconstitutional conditions of confinement at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix are the subject of an entirely different case that federal civil rights lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department have been litigating for 27 years.